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County clerks: State delays handgun permit updates under NY SAFE Act

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 04/21/2014 - 1:07am


A little-known component of the NY SAFE Act has shifted into low gear, according to county clerks who have participated in a pilot program to update handgun licenses.

Much of the controversy surrounding the 2013 gun control law has focused on its expanded assault weapons ban, and the accompanying registration requirement for previously owned rifles. (That deadline was Tuesday.)

But the NY SAFE Act also calls for handgun permit holders to be recertified every five years with their local county clerks or sheriffs. According to the law, all permit holders need to be recertified by 2018.

Last year, the state set up a pilot program with seven counties, including Albany, Schenectady and Saratoga, in which gun owners could start the process early. The intent was to avoid a last-minute rush as the 2018 deadline approached.

But work on the plan hit a detour in February, several county clerks said.

"It looks like it was put on the back burner," Saratoga County Clerk Craig Hayner said.

"There was no communication," Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola added.

"We're just on hold," agreed Cortland County Clerk Elizabeth Larkin.

At the start of the pilot plan, county clerks and state officials had meetings and biweekly phone conferences with State Police and Office of Information Technology Services officials. But the sessions became more sporadic last fall, the clerks said.

By February, as the first of 500 handgun owners were supposed to get their recertification notices, the process came to a halt, Larkin said.

"They said they would notify us when they wanted us," said Larkin, who chairs a NY SAFE Act subcommittee for the state County Clerks Association.

Genesee County Clerk Don Read said they received a series of email messages canceling the remaining conference calls.

Some of the county clerks, including Larkin and Read, subsequently pulled out of the pilot program.

"We have to have communication both ways. We were offering our offices to set up this program. It was a new program. There were bound to be issues," Larkin said.

State officials haven't told the clerks why the pilot program has slowed. But most believe it has to do with difficulties in creating a new handgun database.

"They didn't anticipate the amount of time it was going to take to establish that digital database," Larkin said.

State officials maintain there hasn't been a delay, and insist they're merely identifying ways to improve the recertification process.

Among the enhancements, said State Police spokeswoman Darcy Wells, are features that would allow large numbers of firearms to be submitted and helpful pop-ups on the website that will be used.

"There is significant development and testing to be made to the systems that are being designed before a pilot will be considered," Wells said in a statement. "The team expects to engage the initial counties that considered participating and others as we move forward."

Still, the challenges of creating vast statewide databases have become apparent with other components of the NY SAFE Act.

A system allowing background checks for all ammunition sales was originally supposed to be in place by Jan. 15, but its rollout has been indefinitely postponed amid reports the database isn't ready.

Nor has it gone unnoticed that county clerks were told the pace of work on the handgun effort would likely pick up at the end of the year — after the November elections, in which voters who are still upset about the NY SAFE Act could be a factor.

It wasn't immediately clear how many handgun permit holders the state will need to contact. The State Police have a list of permits with more than 300,000 names, but it is said to date to the 1930s.

The list created controversy in 2010 when a website called "Who's Packing NY" posted it online to howls of protest from gun rights advocates.

Prompting equally vocal protests from advocates for public transparency, the NY SAFE Act allows handgun permit holders to request that their application information be made exempt from disclosure under state Freedom of Information Law.


Categories: State/Local

Law & Order: Smoking in Parks Banned, But Few Tickets

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 04/21/2014 - 1:00am

Washington Square Park (

If you want to smoke in a park, go to Queens.

Since the city's ban on smoking in parks went into effect in 2011, only one ticket for violating it has been issued in Queens — at Flushing Meadows Park in June of 2012.

Compare that to a single day a few months earlier, on St. Patrick's Day, where 30 tickets were issued near Wollman Rink in Central Park to a large group of people smoking and drinking. But even that ticket blitz was unusual for the city's most famous park. Only 50 tickets for smoking, including those 30, have been issued in Central Park in the past three years.

Data on every ticket for smoking in parks issued from 2011 to early 2014 — obtained through a FOIL request from the Parks Department — shows a scattered enforcement of the law that spurred a debate about the reach of government and civil liberties a few years ago. Not surprisingly, most people haven't changed their mind on the law. Smokers still hate it and the law's proponents say it's been a success. Enforcement — which was a highly-debated issue at City Council hearings discussing the law — has been inconsistent and, seemingly, quite rare.

There is obviously no data on how many New Yorkers told other New Yorkers to knock it off — which is how Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the rule would be enforced — but the summons data reveals Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers will occasionally issue $50 fines for smoking, just not really in the 'outer boroughs'.

The total is quite underwhelming. Only 440 tickets have been issued in three years, which means unlike many other ticketable offenses in New York City, it's not a moneymaker. If every one of those tickets was paid, the city only raked in $22,000. Of the 440 tickets, 397 were issued in Manhattan; 17 in Brooklyn; 15 in Staten Island; eight in the Bronx and the one in Queens (the two leftovers were not identified by park).

There is no strict protocol for addressing a violation of the ban. "Depending on the circumstances, the individual PEP Officer typically gives a warning prior to issuing a summons," wrote Parks spokesman Philip Abramson in an e-mail.

For the most part, it seems that those who do not stop smoking when warned are issued tickets, and Parks Enforcement Patrol officers can follow that up with another ticket if the smoker continues using his/her cigarette, cigar, pipe or hookah. There is a vague park violation: "Failure to comply with directives of officer/park employee," which can be issued at the discretion of a Parks Enforcement Patrol officer and carries an additional $250 fine. It is unclear how many of these tickets were issued after a smoking ticket and Parks did not respond with that information.

Enforcement of the smoking ban is left up to the city's 160 or so Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. When asked why more than 90 percent of tickets were issued in Manhattan, Parks said that's just where PEP officers observe the rule-breaking.

"This is where our PEP Officers have observed smoking violations and they issued summonses where appropriate," wrote Abramson.

When asked about the small number of tickets in Queens and the other 'outer boroughs,' Abramson replied with the same thing: "Our PEP Officers take enforcement action wherever they observe violations."

That's not the case, according to many regulars in Manhattan's popular and historic Washington Square Park, a 10-acre park encompassed by NYU that accounts for one-third of the total smoking tickets since 2011.

On a recent beautiful day in the packed park, a handful of people smoked openly. There were no PEP officers around, but two chess players said even if the PEP officers were there, they wouldn't be issuing smoking tickets.

"Nah, they stopped that," said one regular who was smoking a cigarette.

"They don't do it anymore. They leave you alone," said another.

Based on the data, ticketing in Washington Square Park is very uneven. Between January and September 2013, not a single smoking ticket was issued in the park. But in October, PEP officers handed out 57 tickets (13 percent of these tickets ever issued in New York City). After the October frenzy, not one ticket was issued in the park in November, December or this January — and regulars say they haven't seen officers enforcing the rule in recent months.

In the first six months of 2013, only 18 tickets for smoking in parks were issued across the city. In the second half, 116.

This stark increase in tickets coincides with a rare hiring spree in PEP officers. Last summer, the Parks Department almost doubled its force, hiring 81 new PEP officers. Most PEP officers are not assigned to a specific park, rather a specific borough, and according to Joe Puleo, president of AFSCME Local 983, the majority are in Manhattan. Parks did not provide a breakdown of PEP officers by borough.

Audrey Silk, a retired police officer and founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH), an anti-anti-smoking group, guessed that spikes in enforcement have to do with novice officers exerting their newfound power. "As time goes on, it gets less exciting to the officer," she said.

Turnover at Parks among PEP officers is high, according to Puleo, which may account for the ups and down in ticketing. He said of the 81 PEP officers hired last year, 24 are already gone and that's primarily because of the low pay ($32,963 starting salary, according to a job posting on the Parks website that has been open since August.)

Silk also said for her, nothing has changed since the law went into effect and she continues to smoke in Brooklyn parks.

"It's just so toothless that it will fade into oblivion," she said, adding that, "bad laws deserve to be disobeyed."

On the other side of the debate, the law's proponents, including the city's Department of Health, said the law has been a success and become a part of the culture in New York

"The law was part of changing social norms in the city," said Dr. Susan Kansagra, deputy commissioner for the Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. "We think it's been successful."

Dr. Kansagra pointed to a study released last year by the Eastern Evaluation Research Society that showed smoking in parks decreased by two-thirds between the end of 2010 and 2011; the ban went into effect in May 2011.

Dr. Kansagra added that the law is similar to the smoking ban in restaurants and bars, which went into effect in New York City in 2003.

"This law is self-enforcing in the same way that the smoking law in restaurants is," she said.

Queens Community Board 7 member Phil Konigsberg said he thinks the law is becoming part of the norms in New York City.

"It's self-enforcing," he said. "Would you even think about going into a restaurant and lighting up a cigarette and smoking?"

Anecdotally, Beverly Nelson, a Bronx resident who has a son with asthma, said she thinks the law has been working.

"People just know they can't because they haven't been smoking," Nelson said, also pointing out that the amount of cigarette butts at Orchard Beach has decreased incredibly.

"I think overall the law is working. I see less smoking in our parks and beaches and pedestrian plazas," said Sheelah Feinberg, executive director of the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. "From my vantage point, I think it has been a successful policy."

Many of the people interviewed for this story said they thought it must be tourists who refuse to put out their cigarettes that are getting the tickets. For a tourist in New York City, the smoking law can be confusing because it is not against the law to smoke in nine state parks within city limits, including Riverbank Park in Manhattan and East River State Park in Brooklyn. Last year, a judge overturned the state parks ban on smoking after C.L.A.S.H. filed a lawsuit. Even so, Hudson River Park in Manhattan has taken it upon itself to ban smoking, though C.L.A.S.H. has filed another lawsuit to stop the ban.

If it is mainly tourists, some are getting the message. On April 14, two German tourists smoked outside the gates of Washington Square Park directly in front of a 'no smoking' sign. When asked if they had ever been ticketed, they said they had only been in New York City since Saturday.

"No, we're scared," one said.

"So we're out here," said the other.

by Adam Wisnieski for Gotham Gazette


Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 20

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 04/20/2014 - 6:35pm

New York City Hall (wikimedia)

What to look for this week, via the city and Albany:

After a fairly quiet week due to the Passover and Easter holidays and public school spring break, things are due to pick back up this week, at least in New York City, if not Albany where the legislature is still on break until next Monday, April 28th.

Mayor Bill de Blasio begins his week with an appearance on ABC's The View Monday morning, followed by yet another pre-kindergarten-related event, at which he will urge families to sign their children up for pre-k by Wednesday's deadline. Monday evening, de Blasio will deliver remarks at the New York Times Cities For Tomorrow Conference.

Expect several other events and announcements from the mayor this week, perhaps including additional appointments to top posts in his administration.

The City Council has not held a public meeting of any kind since it's last full-body "stated" meeting of April 10th. This Wednesday, April 23rd, council committee hearings will kick back into gear, with a frenzy of meetings the last three days of the week:

Wednesday, 4/23
The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m. to review the Domino Sugar Factory land use application. The hearing will be more of a formality, as the deal was already officially announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Look to see what, if any, issues are brought up by Council Member Antonio Reynoso, whose district the project is housed in, and how those issues may be addressed with a deal already in place. The Committee on Land will take stock of the deal on Thursday.

The Technology Committee will meet at 10 a.m. to analyze how the City uses data and technology to improve health and safety in New York. A representative from the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics is expected to testify on this topic as well as discuss future projects.

The Committee on Parks will hold an oversight hearing at 1 p.m. to look at equity among parks. Are there disparities in the care of the City's open spaces? Many visiting Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens argue yes. De Blasio has said he supports measures to redistribute some of the money from the larger park conservancies to poorer parks. This hearing could sow the seeds to move that initiative - which is not favored by some parks advocates - forward.

The Vision Zero town hall series continues with its third borough installment, in Queens. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at LaGuardia Community College. (Council Member Brad Lander and Park Slope Street Safety Partnership are having one their own on Monday evening in Brooklyn)

Also Wednesday evening, city officials including Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and the DOE's Chief Strategy Officer, Josh Wallack, will participate in "Universal Pre-K in New York City: Quality & Equity in the Face of Rapid Expansion" at Bank Street College.

Thursday, 4/24
The Committee on Economic Development will hold an oversight hearing at 10 a.m. to examine the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a model for the expansion of New York's industrial sector. Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen cited Brooklyn Navy Yard in her recent ABNY speech on the city's tech economy. No word if Glen will testify at the hearing.

The Education Committee will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. Noticeably absent from the agenda is the promised oversight hearing regarding charter schools. Chair Danny Dromm had promised in early March to call in Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz for closing her schools and busing her students to Albany for a political rally. The hearing was originally scheduled for April 8 but postponed until the 24th "due to scheduling conflicts." But, the agenda posted for the rescheduled hearing makes no mention of charter schools - instead, the meeting is set to focus on the reporting of school environmental data.

With the State budget agreement's protections for charters showing a loss for Mayor de Blasio, there is reason to believe that neither the mayor nor his council allies want to bring further attention to the issue for the time being.

Friday, 4/25
The Committee on General Welfare will meet jointly with the Committee on Youth Services at 10 a.m. to discuss data collection on runaway and homeless youth.

The Committee on Civil Rights and Committee on Higher Education will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss faculty diversity at CUNY.

And a few things to look for from Albany:

Since the legislature broke after reaching a budget deal, Albany has been quiet. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo has kept a low profile after being heavily criticized for disbanding his Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.

While State Senators and Assembly Members have been in their home districts, rumors about reconciliation between the Independent Democrats and their mainland party-mates seem to be leading nowhere. All eyes are on former New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell, who has said he will announce after Easter whether or not he will be mounting a primary challenge to Independent Democratic Conference leader state Senator Jeff Klein.

Meanwhile, forecasts of the post-budget legislative session include significant items like campaign finance reform, which Klein is making a priority, "Vision Zero" bills, and much more. Both houses of the legislature return to Albany on April 28th; the session ends in mid-June.


by Kristen Meriwether and Ben Max in New York City and David King in Albany





Categories: State/Local

Ruling upholds gun law legality

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 04/20/2014 - 1:07am


A state Supreme Court justice has rejected a lawsuit brought by activist Bob Schulz, who claimed the NY SAFE Act was passed too quickly.

Schulz contended the gun control legislation shouldn't have received a "message of necessity," a legislative maneuver in which the governor, at the request of legislative leaders, allows for a vote on a bill without the usual three-day "aging'' period.

The delay is intended to allow lawmakers to study a bill without last-minute amendments. But if there is a emergency or time constraint, that can be circumvented.

In upholding the gun law, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara ruled that Cuomo administration members at the time argued "some weapons are so dangerous and some ammunition devices so lethal that New York state must act without delay.''

The law was approved less than a month after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Administration officials said they wanted to move quickly to stop a run on gun stores, where patrons rushed to buy assault-style weapons that the new law banned for subsequent purchase or sale.

The decision said the legality of the message of necessity has been settled in other cases.

McNamara ruled "as long as the governor's certificate contains some factual statements, the sufficiency of the state facts to support the governor's conclusion may not be challenged.''

Schulz said he plans to appeal, adding he still believes use of the message of necessity has been abused.

NY SAFE Act supporters said they were glad the suit was shot down.

"I am pleased that the courts have once again validated our approach to arming New York with the toughest gun control laws in the country," said state Sen. Jeff Klein, who heads the Independent Democratic Conference.

Klein had become co-leader of the Senate — a post shared with Republican Dean Skelos — when the bill was approved. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

AG's taxes: He's paying both feds and state

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 10:07pm


Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ended the tax year owing both the federal and state governments, according to his 2013 returns.

Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat, had an adjusted gross income of $297,836 — just over half of which came from his $156,881 salary as the state's top lawyer. The rest came from investment income, including $98,341 in capital gains from the sale of mutual funds. Schneiderman's staff allowed reporters to see the returns Wednesday.

The attorney general's overall adjusted gross income was up more than $55,000 from the $242,618 he reported to the IRS in 2012. Schneiderman's total federal tax liability added up to $62,534 — or $9,620 more than he paid over the course of the year. His $56,893 in deductions include $9,353 in real estate taxes paid on his Manhattan co-op and $6,693 in charitable contributions. Those contributions included $500 to Planned Parenthood, $500 to Action Against Hunger, $2,000 to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens and $3,343 to his Upper West Side synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun, his office said.

Schneiderman's city and state tax liability amounted to $28,924, $2,585 more than he paid over the course of the year. His returns also reflected that he paid $17,205 in financial management fees and $1,404 for tax preparation.


Categories: State/Local

Mr. Insider-Outsider Richard Ravitch chronicles life in government

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 9:07pm


At age 80, Richard Ravitch holds on to what he describes as "an Emersonian faith in politics."

"It's the only way to change things," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

How Ravitch managed to preserve that belief after decades of work on some of New York state's thorniest fiscal problems is the subject of his new memoir "So Much To Do" (PublicAffairs, $26.99), which surveys his singular career shuttling between the private and public sectors. The author is slated to visit Albany's Rockefeller Institute of Government on Wednesday, a day after the book arrives in stores.

In engaging and lucid prose — especially beneficial considering the subject at hand — Ravitch describes his work with Gov. Hugh Carey to avert the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the mid-1970s, his four years as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (exhausting but "the most exhilarating of my life"), his and the 18 tumultuous months he spent as Gov. David Paterson's appointed lieutenant governor — the state's first unelected No. 2.

Ravitch's selection for the job helped end the state Senate's five-week coup crisis, in which renegade Democrat Pedro Espada Jr. joined Republicans in an attempt to take the majority in the chamber — an action that, if successful, could have placed the ethically challenged Espada a heartbeat away from the governor's office. Paterson, whose elevation to governor after Eliot Spitzer's exit in March 2008 had left the lieutenant governor's seat vacant, rushed Ravitch into office with such speed that his oath of office was signed "amid the steak, tomatoes, and creamed spinach" during dinner at Peter Luger, the venerable Brooklyn restaurant.

Ravitch writes about the brief period in February 2010 when it appeared possible that a string of scandals might force Paterson to resign, prompting a friend to draft a transition speech that Ravitch could deliver as needed. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver suggested Ravitch have coffee with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who was already the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate after Paterson gave up his own ambitions for a second term.

At that meeting, Cuomo asked who Ravitch, were he to become governor, might select as his lieutenant. "I assured him that as he was clearly going to be the next governor, I wouldn't make any appointment without consulting him," Ravitch writes.

Elsewhere in the book, Ravitch describes himself as "the quintessential participant-observer," a fair description of an insider who has managed to hold onto an outsider's perspective.

That duality is most pronounced in Ravitch's account of the cold reception given to his March 2010 budget reform plan, which would have shifted the start of the state's fiscal year, transformed its accounting methods and created a review board to assess the long-term viability of budget agreements. Ravitch also proposed short-term borrowing — up to $6 billion over a three-year period — to help the state crawl out from the wreckage of the 2008 recession.

Despite good reviews from many editorial boards, Ravitch's blueprint went nowhere. "Without the governor's strong support, my plan never had a chance," he writes, also noting the plan was not well received by Cuomo or Paterson's Secretary Larry Schwartz, who now serves Cuomo in the same post.

Speaking from his New York City office, Ravitch summed up "the fundamental problem" in state finance: "Every incentive in the world exists to kick the can down the road."

It's not a pathology specific to New York state, as Ravitch has learned in his recent work with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker on a task force examining the challenges facing state and municipal governments.

Ravitch offers praise for Cuomo's stands on social issues and his ability to fight New York's reputation for dysfunction, but bemoans what he sees as a continued reliance on can-kicking strategies such as the amortization of local pension contributions.

As an advocate of public financing of campaigns, he scoffs at the comptroller-only compromise that emerged from the recent budget negotiation.

"I think that's silly," said Ravitch, who applauded Democratic Comptroller Tom DiNapoli for refusing to take part in the plan.


Categories: State/Local

Book deal gives Cuomo earnings sizable boost

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 5:07pm


Writing about being governor is apparently more lucrative than being governor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's advance from HarperCollins for his forthcoming memoir, "All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life," is worth at least $188,333, according to the governor's 2013 tax return.

But Cuomo's office declined to say just how big the total advance from the publisher will be.

Cuomo's tax returns, shown to reporters Tuesday, reflect that $153,206 of that advance was included in the governor's $358,448 federal adjusted gross income, which was more than double his income the previous year thanks to the book deal.

The $35,127 difference between the total advance payment and what he reported to the IRS as income is what Cuomo paid for representation in the book deal, his office said.

While the governor's staff said the $188,333 is just the first installment of the advance from the publisher, Cuomo's office wouldn't say how many more payments are headed the governor's way for the book, which is slated for release Aug. 5.

A spokeswoman for HarperCollins said it was company policy not to comment on authors' advances.

Other than the advance, the bulk of Cuomo's income came from his $175,277 state salary. Cuomo paid $102,480 in federal taxes but only owed $96,302, yielding a $6,178 refund that he took by direct deposit. His effective federal tax rate was about 26.8 percent.

Cuomo made a $16,000 charitable contribution to HELP USA, a charity that works with the homeless that he founded in 1986, and paid $6,250 in tax preparation fees.

The governor's state tax payments amounted to $25,963 — an overpayment of $1,056 that he pledged toward next year's taxes owed. He claimed no credits for property taxes paid because his Westchester County home is in the name of his girlfriend, Food Network host Sandra Lee.

Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy and his wife, Barbara, reported a combined federal adjusted gross income of $262,180, up nearly $23,000 from 2012, according to their joint return. Cuomo's office said the jump is accounted for by Barbara Duffy's new job, taken midway through 2012, working in human resources for Synergy Global Solutions, a Monroe County-based technology service firm. Previously, she had worked as a human resources consultant.

The Duffys reported a combined $191,231 in salary and wages in addition to the lieutenant governor's $70,255 Rochester police pension. They owed $48,465 in federal taxes but paid just $45,067, requiring an additional federal payment of $3,398, according to their return.

The Duffys, who sold their Rochester home last year and bought one in the Finger Lakes, also paid $9,919 in property taxes and gave $5,991 in charitable gifts, including clothing and furniture donated to a thrift store and pegged at fair market value of $3,085. They overpaid their $10,815 state income tax liability, resulting in a $201 refund.


Categories: State/Local

Eldridge maintains his fundraising lead

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 5:07pm


Challenger Sean Eldridge appears to be maintaining his fundraising lead on U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson in the 19th Congressional District — despite what the Republican incumbent's campaign said was the most fruitful fundraising quarter of his congressional career.

The Ulster County Democrat's campaign said it would report raising more than $520,000 during the first quarter of this year, $250,000 of which is Eldridge's own money pledged to match other donors' contributions.

The haul leaves him with $1.58 million in cash on hand about seven months out from Election Day and brings the total of his own fortune pledged to the campaign to $965,000, his campaign said. Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, lives in Shokan.

Gibson, a retired Army colonel and two-term incumbent who lives in Kinderhook, will report raising $459,000, leaving him with $1.23 million on hand, his campaign said.

That's roughly the same gap — around $350,000 — that existed between the two candidates in their January filings.

While Eldridge raised about $8,000 less in the first quarter this year than he did in the fourth quarter of 2013, Gibson raised substantially more than the $269,000 he reported in January. And for Gibson, the $459,000 is more than he has raised in any quarter since his 2010 election, his campaign said.

Neither candidate's actual campaign finance disclosure filing had hit the Federal Election Commission's online database by deadline Tuesday.

The closely divided district, expected to be among the most competitive in the country, stretches across 11 counties from Otsego to Dutchess. Republicans hold an enrollment advantage of nearly 3,200.

Categories: State/Local

Federal stalemate trickles down to state job loss

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 12:07am


The failure of Congress to extend unemployment benefits is hitting the state workforce with layoffs and cuts in hours.

The state Department of Labor has informed 67 hourly employees that they'll lose their jobs May 14. Another 215 will go from full- to part-time status, although they will be eligible for unemployment insurance. Another 24 workers will likely be laid off in the coming months.

None of the cuts will affect the permanent workforce.

"Decreased federal funding has affected numerous states, including New York," state Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera confirmed in a prepared statement Tuesday. "As a result of the federal cuts, the Department of Labor must reduce the number of work hours and eliminate the position for some non-permanent, hourly staff funded by those federal programs."

Those being laid off are the people that other layoff victims turn to for assistance: workers who staff the helplines that the unemployed or job-seekers call when they need assistance in securing unemployment checks or searching for a new job.

A handful of managers will be cut along with the unionized workers.

"They are all hourly employees who are federally funded," said Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, the union representing 52 workers who are being let go and 36 whose hours will be cut.

"They simply don't have the funding," Madarasz said.

He said the Labor Department has tried to minimize the fallout, but added "at the end of the day, there are some who will be terminated."

About half the cuts are in the Albany area, with the remainder in other parts of the state. Some of the managers being laid off are retirees who had been filling in on a part-time basis.

It wasn't immediately clear if members of the state's second-largest public union, the Public Employees Federation, were affected. PEF spokespeople couldn't be reached on Tuesday.

Because the agency relies heavily on federal funding, job losses at the Department of Labor haven't been unheard of over the years.

Also, the need for employment services tends to be cyclical. Typically, more people are out of work in the winter, with construction slowing and the end of the holiday retail rush.

But the specific layoffs stem from federal cutbacks and tie in with an ongoing deadlock in Washington, where Congress hasn't renewed the emergency unemployment extension which began during the 2008 recession.

Part of the federal funding came with the post-recession federal stimulus program.

The Democratic-led U.S. Senate voted for the extension earlier this month, but the Republican-controlled House hasn't moved the issue since late last year.

State Department of Labor officials say that the cuts should have a "minimal'' impact on customer service. The state's Career Centers and other call centers will remain open. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Onondagas file petition for help

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 12:07am


After repeated rebuffs by the federal courts, the Onondaga Nation on Tuesday asked an international human rights commission to help the Onondagas "work for a healing" of their polluted lands.

More than 50 members of the nation gathered in Washington for the filing of the petition with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, requesting recognition that the United States has infringed on the Onondagas' rights.

"The Nation ... is working with its non-Indian neighbors to address serious environmental damage to Onondaga Lake and Onondaga Nation territory," said Alexandra Page of Berkey Williams LLP, the Onondagas' counsel. "This petition is another step in a long, long, fight and is part of the Nation's longstanding efforts to bring about a healing with its neighbors and the natural world."

The Nation is not seeking monetary compensation or eviction of current residents from its lands — but seeks involvement and progress in the environmental cleanup and conservation of the land.

The Nation's 2005 filing sought recognition of its legal ownership of 2.5 million acres of land, which it says was illegally purchased by the state of New York between 1788 and 1822. The land includes Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, which the Onondagas consider sacred and was named an EPA Superfund site in 1994 because of chemical pollution, which the Nation said is the result of multiple toxic waste sites in and around the area.

New York filed a motion to dismiss the Land Rights Action, saying that the Onondagas waited too long to file the case. The Onondagas responded with historical documentation of their ancestors' meetings with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from when the Nation first requested recognition of their right to the land from the state of New York.

After oral arguments heard in 2007, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed the land claim in 2010 and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Nation's appeal in 2012. In October 2013, the Supreme Court denied hearing the case.

The Nation's spiritual leader, Sid Hill, said the Onondagas feel they were treated unfairly when their requests for a rehearing were denied.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is an institution of the Organization of American States that seeks to protect human rights in the American hemisphere. Hill said the petition was a cry for help to the international community and was a last resort for the Nation after the Supreme Court refused to hear its case.

"It's not what we consider to be a fair thing in your justice system," Hill said. "If they don't hear the case then how do we get justice and when we have complaints? Where can we go?"

In addition to the lake bed pollution, Hill said salt and gravel mining in Tully Valley has damaged Onondaga Creek by causing mud boils and subsidence of the area's land. What was once a source of fish and fresh water for the Onondagas is now polluted, further damaging other streams and rivers that feed into Onondaga Lake.

Hill said Honeywell International Inc., the company that operates those mines, is partially responsible for the pollution, and inaccurately claims to have made large cleanup efforts when only around 10 percent of the toxic waste has been dredged.

"They dumped millions of tons of toxic waste into that Onondaga Lake and have a number of waste pits around the lake," he said. "And when they started drilling salt, mud boils were produced, and now our stream that runs through our nation is chocolate brown throughout the year with tons of salt rolling in through the lake."

Honeywell declined to comment on Tuesday, but Page said that if the Commission agrees that the Nation's rights have been violated by the federal court's refusal to hear the case, it will work with the Nation to educate the public on the environmental damage the area has endured.

The commission's claims take six months to process. If the violations are recognized, the commission will work with the United States and the Nation to find a resolution.

"Fair resolution of the Nation's claims will require participation by the United States, working on a nation-to-nation basis with the Onondaga Nation, as well as the state of New York and local governments and citizens," Page said.

As a self-governing people, Hill said, the Nation has no plans to engage politically on the issue, or to request that any residents relocate. Hill said a resolution between the U.S. and the Onondaga Nation to work together on the preservation and protection of the land is what his people want to see.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo accepts pro-charter role

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/19/2014 - 12:07am


In another sign of his devotion to the charter school movement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will serve as "honorary chairman" at an upcoming retreat for national advocates for the publicly funded, privately operated schools.

Touted as "a philosopher's camp on education reform," Camp Philos will take place May 4 to 6 at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid. The event is being organized by Education Reform Now, a group that includes prominent business leaders who support charter schools, as well as other reforms.

The list of topics on the Camp Philos website includes jargon-heavy issues such as "tight-loose" options for access to education, as well as "collaborative models for changing state and local teacher policies."

Beside Cuomo, headline participants include national charter school figures like U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who co-chairs the Senate charter school caucus, and former NBA star and Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is married to controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst, an education reform group that has taken on teacher tenure.

Russlynn Ali, a former federal Department of Education official who heads the Emerson Collective, also is listed. The Collective, supported by Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Jobs, supports a number of initiatives, including immigration reform, environmental protection and charter schools. Tickets for Camp Philos are $1,000 for general admission and $2,500 for VIP access, which includes a reception with featured guests.

Cuomo emerged as a strong charter school supporter in March during negotiations for the recently enacted state budget. His fierce expressions of support coincided with the governor's debate with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over the newly elected leader's call for a city income tax surcharge to support expanded prekindergarten programs.

Charter school critics are depicting Camp Philos as an elitist event. "When hedge fund operators and billionaires gather to make education policy, parents and teachers have every reason to be concerned," said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's major teachers union.

Administration officials note that the governor meets with lots of groups, including leaders of teachers unions. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Cuomo was "pleased to welcome a major national education conference to the North Country.

Board of directors, including Sessa Capital founder John Petry, who gave Cuomo's campaign $35,000 over the past three years, and Charles Ledley, who has contributed $25,000 since 2009. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Today's Lead: Mayor Outlines Sandy Aid Reforms

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 8:05am

By the end of summer, construction will begin on 500 storm-damaged homes and another 500 reimbursement checks for repairs will have been mailed, according to a plan for reforming Sandy recovery aid outlined by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday. Over 4,000 additional residents will be eligible for compensation under the plan. To handle the workload, the mayor said he'd shift employees from the Buildings Department. He also committed to hiring local workers. It's been over 18 months since the storm hit, and construction under the Build it Back program has only begun on nine homes, though more than 14,000 people have asked for help. Officials estimate another $1 billion in federal funds will be needed, but Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm complained that the mayor never mentioned the need to him. The New York League of Conservation Voters also criticized the plan for a lack of resiliency planning for future storms.

New this morning at Gotham Gazette
Building Back, Hiring Local
Kristen Meriwether looks at Mayor de Blasio's promise that Sandy rebuilding projects will be done, in part, by workers from devastated communities.

A Post-Budget 'Big Ugly'?
David King reports on the legislation on the agenda in Albany for the post-budget section of the legislative session.

The Next 100 Days
An op-ed by StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis outlining what she would like to see from the mayor and the chancellor, especially with regard to the teachers' union contract.

Other Stories We're Following

MTA and Union Reach a Deal (NY Times)

Muslims Unite on Push to Add Holidays to School Calendar (NY Times)

City Wins Two Charter Lawsuits (Daily News)

NYPD Commissioner Rolling Back Overseas Counterterrorism Efforts (AP)

Former NYPD Commissioner Had Shrunk Demographics Unit (Daily News)

Experts to Weigh in on Port Authority Reforms (WSJ)

Co-leader of State Democrats Is Out (Times Union)

Petition Challenges Fly in Recchia-Grimm Battle (NY Observer)

Old Timey Car to Replace Horse Carriages (AP)

City Jobs Up Again - So is Unemployment (Crain's)

Categories: State/Local

Master Teachers selected

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:07am


Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced the selection of 215 new state Master Teachers, top-ranked educators who will receive $15,000 annual stipends for four years. Those chosen will work with students and fellow teachers on new programs designed to enhance instruction in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields.

Initial selections were announced last fall. The additions bring the total number of Master Teachers to 319 spread cross 10 regions.

In a statement, Cuomo said the program "creates a community of teacher experts dedicated to providing a first-rate learning experience for students."

In the Capital Region, 23 teachers were added to the ranks. The University at Albany will serve as the regional host for the program.

— Casey Seiler

Categories: State/Local

Bethlehem grad part of reporting team to win Pulitzer

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:07am


His name may not be listed on the award, but Matthew DeLong is Bethlehem's Pulitzer Prize connection.

The 1996 Bethlehem Central High School graduate, who works as national digital projects editor for the Washington Post, played a key behind-the-scenes role in posting documents that accompanied the paper's series on the National Security Agency and its controversial surveillance programs.

The reporting won this year's Pulitzer for public service journalism.

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, DeLong said the tight-knit team that worked on the series knew they were onto something big from the start of the project.

"We always thought it was, certainly, the biggest story of the year," he said.

Documents that ended up on the paper's website included data about the government's "black budget" that funds intelligence-gathering.

DeLong said he also developed a web template to provide explanations to accompany key documents.

A graduate of Northern Arizona University, DeLong arrived at the Washington Post after a semester at Georgetown University and an internship at a now-defunct political and news site.

DeLong said he and fellow team members had an inkling they would win the prestigious award earlier when he was told to make sure they would be around Monday.

Categories: State/Local

Growing pains in gun groups

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:07am

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of the president of the Shooters Committee on Public Education. He is Stephen Aldstadt.


Tom King, the president of the state's largest and oldest pro-gun group, has never had a bigger pulpit — and he's never had so many of his fellow believers yelling at him.

The president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association saw its membership nearly double last year to more than 41,000 after passage of the state's most divisive gun control law in decades, making it the nation's largest state affiliate of the powerful National Rifle Association.

But 15 months after passage of the SAFE Act, New York's often boisterous Second Amendment movement is showing signs of growing pains as King — an NRA board member — has come under increasingly strident criticism from those in newer, upstart groups who accuse him of not taking a hard enough line in pushing for the law's repeal.

The bill, rushed through the Legislature less than a month after the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, requires the owners of newly banned assault weapons to register them with the State Police by Tuesday — a provision some gun rights advocates, but not King, are urging New Yorkers to ignore at the risk of a misdemeanor charge.

On pro-Second Amendment bulletin boards — where the harshest words have long been reserved for the law's architect, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — King's message of moderation is derided as an outright betrayal.

But King and others say they worry the blistering rhetoric, such as urging gun owners to "prepare for war," from some gun rights groups is harming the larger effort, and that pushing for repeal is a distraction when the real fight must play out in the courts. NYSRPA has already convinced a federal judge to block a provision of the law limiting the number of bullets gun owners can load in their guns.

Given the political reality of a state Assembly securely controlled by New York City Democrats who overwhelmingly support the law, King believes lawmakers stoking hopes of repeal are being disingenuous.

"They know as well as I do that it's never, ever going to be repealed in the true sense of the word," said King, who lives in Rensselaer County.

King said he embraces what he views as a marketplace of ideas, so long as all the groups share a common end.

"I'm not going to attack anybody, but I would like the same respect in return," he said. "I think what's going on here is a healthy competition to kind of sort out where we stand and what's going on."

This split between ideology and political pragmatism in some ways mirrors the intraparty spats between mainstream Republicans and the tea party, or Democrats and the Occupy movement.

"People need to voice their displeasure with the Legislature so people don't think that we went away," said Patrick Morse, founder of the North Country Friends of the Second Amendment, which focuses mostly on education. "But I also think that some of these more radical displays may do more harm than good — because we're going after the swing voters."

The divide is complicated by the looming gubernatorial race and the jousting egos of those supporting Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is backed by NYSRPA and state GOP Chairman Ed Cox, and those led by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, who has mounted a so-far-fruitless effort to draft real estate mogul Donald Trump.

The chief rival to King's NYSRPA is, like Paladino, based in western New York: The Shooters Committee on Public Education, or SCOPE, was a major sponsor of the April 1 rally that featured Trump, Paladino and Astorino. State Police said it drew as many as 3,500 SAFE Act opponents to Empire State Plaza.

Before the rally, King stoked anger with a memo outlining his belief that such displays have outlived their usefulness and amount to "preaching to the choir." He attended the rally but did not address the crowd — in part, he said, because his group's lawyers have urged him to avoid rhetoric that could be used against NYSRPA in its lawsuit.

"There's certainly differences of opinion on the best tactics," said SCOPE leader Stephen Aldstadt. "We do the best that we can to work in coordination with any other group."

Still, Aldstadt allowed that King's memo likely depressed turnout at what was supposed to be a signature event in the lead-up to this week's registration deadline.

Jake Palmateer, co-founder of the NY2A Grassroots Coalition, said the average gun owner "doesn't care much at all" about the internal politics of the movement. "We're talking about a small number of people that have differences in leadership positions, and they're being worked out," he said.

Len Cutler, director of Siena College's Center for the Study of Government and Politics, suggested the cross-currents inside the movement are similar to those that vexed same-sex marriage advocates leading up to its legalization in 2011, as boosters jousted over whether to focus their fight in the Legislature or the courts. And the pressure on King, Cutler said, is not unlike that which drove the president of the state's major teachers union from office this month amid anger over its response to the Common Core.

"As the leader of a movement, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," Cutler said.

Larger Second Amendment groups like SCOPE and NYSRPA have stopped short of calling on gun owners to defy the law, but the newcomer New York Revolution has urged owners not to register or modify their weapons to make them legal.

The group — regarded within the movement as among the most bellicose — embraces a "III%er" imagery that nods to the 3 percent of American Colonists its says actively resisted Britain during the American Revolution.

Founder George Curbelo acknowledged that symbolism makes some people uncomfortable, but he noted it also has non-violent connotations. While he said it remains a personal decision, his group is urging non-compliance as a form of civil disobedience to parallel its efforts to convince police not enforce the law.

"For those who try to be politically correct, it's shocking for them to hear us say to the public, 'Do not comply,'" Curbelo said. "We are beyond being cautious with our words. ... In a very peaceful manner, we need to speak out our minds. We need to say what's in our hearts." • 518-454-5445 • @JCEvangelist_TU

Categories: State/Local

Assault weapon deadline at hand

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:07am


This year, April 15 isn't just Tax Day. It also is the deadline for owners of newly defined assault weapons to register their guns with the state.

Tuesday's deadline applies to previously owned weapons that are now banned for sale or purchase under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2013 SAFE Act gun control law. The registration of these grandfathered weapons is a key provision of the law, and it has triggered a steady volley of protests, lawsuits and complaints from gun enthusiasts in the 15 months since the SAFE Act was signed into law.

In an echo of protests during the Vietnam War, some gun owners have symbolically burned the new assault rifle registration cards.

"They're making millions of people subject to being criminals," said George Romero of Orange County Shooters, a gun club based in that county.

For all the rancor, Tuesday will likely come and go without much in the way of political fireworks. There is talk of a "shredding party" for gun enthusiasts to tear up registration forms in Buffalo, and some local gun clubs will meet to consider backing legislative candidates who oppose the SAFE Act.

But gun owners who don't comply with the law are unlikely to talk publicly about committing a misdemeanor.

"No one is saying anything one way or another," said Tom King, president of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, which is pursuing legal action against the SAFE Act.

Also remaining silent are officials at the State Police, which is charged with maintaining the new registry. Asked in recent months to provide the number of people who have registered their weapons, they have refused, citing a provision in the law that keeps all internal data secret. That policy won't change after the registration deadline passes, they say.

No one knows for sure how many newly classified assault weapons are in the state. After passage of the SAFE Act, State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico said there are probably "hundreds of thousands." Others say there could easily be 1 million such guns.

Regardless of the number, there are indications that enforcing the registration rule isn't a priority with police. The state Sheriffs Association, which has criticized the new assault weapon ban as lacking in clarity, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the lawsuit challenging it. Some sheriffs, including Erie County's Tim Howard, have said they won't enforce the rule.

"This regulatory component doesn't have a lot to do with the sheriffs," said Alex Wilson, associate counsel for the Sheriffs Association.

In Connecticut, a similar registration requirement for assault weapons went into effect on Dec. 31. An estimated 50,000 weapons have been registered, a number that authorities estimate is just 15 percent of the total.

Critics say New York's law is unlikely to be strictly enforced for political, social and practical reasons.

"The governor has painted himself into a corner with the SAFE Act," says Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a Rochester-area Republican who is a leading SAFE Act critic.

"If 90 percent of the gun owners refuse to register, the county sheriffs and other local law enforcement officers want no part of it, and rank-and-file troopers go to church and belong to the same gun clubs as the people who are not registering, what is the governor going to do — stomp his feet and pound the table?" Nojay asked.

The law has been altered and delayed. A system of real-time background checks for ammunition buyers that was supposed to start on Jan. 15 was pushed back because the database isn't ready. State officials now say there is no deadline for the new system.

More recently, police have held off enforcing a part of the law that is being appealed, a seven-round limit on the number of bullets that can be loaded in a gun. Federal Judge William Skretny, from the state's western district, upheld most of the law in December but ruled that the magazine limit was confusing.

As of March, only 43 people had been charged in conjunction with that part of the law, according to state statistics.

Still, supporters of the law remain steadfast. "It's common sense. It's not radical, it's not taking anyone's guns away," said Leah Barrett of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, who said that the bill attracted votes from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The Cuomo administration points to polls such as a recent Siena Research Institute survey that found 63 percent of respondents statewide are in favor of the limit, with 32 percent opposed. Upstate respondents, however, opposed it by a narrower margin of 52 to 45 percent.

The state's Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act was put forth by Cuomo just weeks after the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which 28 people died — including 20 small children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer used a Glock pistol and a variation of the AR-15 assault weapon.

Key to the SAFE Act is the ban on AR-15-style guns, defined as a weapon with a detachable magazine and at least one military-type feature such as a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or a pistol grip.

In a change the law's framers might not have predicted, the SAFE Act has changed the way some lightweight assault-style weapons are designed and marketed.

The Times Union last year found that gun shops, along with arms makers and machinists, were modifying AR-15-style weapons to conform with the new law. Removing features such as pistol grips or folding stocks make the guns "SAFE Act-compliant," they say.

Recent examples include the "New York-compliant'' rifle offered by Missouri-based Black Rain Ordnance and a carbine made by Just Right, a Canandaigua company.

Other manufacturers have entered the "New York-compliant'' market, including Stag Arms and Windham Weaponry, said Rich Sehlmeyer of The Gun Shop at MacGregors in Lake Luzerne.

Enthusiasts are "furious" at the ban and registration requirement, he said, and the new models are selling "extremely well."


Categories: State/Local

Spano on state Board of Elections

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:07am


The state Board of Elections will be back up to its full complement of commissioners when former Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano becomes the newest Democratic representative on the four-member panel.

Spano's appointment, which comes four months after the departure of longtime Democratic Commissioner Evelyn Aquila, is expected to be made Monday, according to a Cuomo administration source. While the commissioners and co-chairs are named by the governor, they are selected on the recommendation of Democratic and Republican party leaders.

"I'm looking forward to it," Spano told the Times Union in an interview Sunday.

Spano served three terms as Westchester County executive, beginning with his election in 1997 and ending with his 2009 defeat by Republican Rob Astorino, who last month announced his intention to run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in November.

Spano said he would likely recuse himself if an enforcement matter involving Astorino's campaign came before the board.

For most of his tenure as county executive, Spano's top deputy was Larry Schwartz, who now serves as Cuomo's secretary, or chief adviser. Spano served as a member of Cuomo's Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, which made its final report a year ago.

Spano joins the Board of Elections following a season of tumult. The board, charged with enforcing state's election law, came in for withering criticism from Cuomo's Moreland Commission probe into public corruption. In its December preliminary report, the Moreland panel concluded the board "lacks the structural independence, the resources, and the will to enforce election and campaign finance laws."

As part of a package of ethics reforms tucked into the recently enacted state budget — which also brought about the disbanding of the Moreland panel — the Board of Elections will soon add a chief enforcement officer to be named by the governor with the approval of the Assembly and Senate.

That official will oversee an independent unit housed within the board, and serve as a fifth and potentially tie-breaking vote whenever the commissioners consider an enforcement action. The board's partisan split has been cited by its critics as a blueprint for gridlock, though the board's members have said those claims are exaggerated.

Asked about the panel's recent troubles, Spano said he was "not well-versed in what's been going on at the board in Albany; I'm well-versed in the election process."

Although Aquila expressed hope that she would be replaced by another woman, the addition of Spano leaves the board without a female member.

The board's three other members are Republican Co-Chair James Walsh and Commissioner Gregory Peterson, and Democratic Co-Chair Douglas Kellner.


Categories: State/Local

The Next 100 Days

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:00am


To be fair, as much as pundits and talking heads like to focus on an elected official's "first 100 days" in office, 100 days is not a very long time. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña can't be expected to have fully eradicated poverty in New York City or turned around every failing school in such a short timeframe. But we can expect them to offer a vision for improving public education, along with concrete ideas about how to make schools tangibly better for students.

In place of specifics, the mayor and chancellor gave speeches to mark their first 100 days that were heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. The mayor parroted UFT talking points – inaccurately at that – and exaggerated a teacher retention crisis to lay the groundwork for large teacher raises. The chancellor, in a 17-page speech, offered not a single solution to improve struggling schools. In place of specifics, she offered vague references to increasing joy and collaboration. To be clear, we are also pro-joy and collaboration, but we need real solutions to the real challenges facing our schools.

With the first 100 days behind us, it's time to look forward. What can the mayor and chancellor do over the next 100 days and 100 weeks to ensure that every child in New York City has access to a high quality public education?

Over the next 100 days, the de Blasio administration will engage in a process that will have a direct and profound impact on the course of New York City schools for years to come. The City and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will hammer out the details of a new teachers contract that will serve as a blueprint for how the mayor plans to shape public education. The mayor should use this opportunity to focus on retaining and rewarding great teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers.

StudentsFirstNY understands that a great education starts with great teachers. That's why we support higher pay for teachers and we encourage the administration to negotiate a contract that treats teachers like the professionals they are. In order to retain the best, the City should increase pay for highly effective early career teachers. Paying good teachers more money will help attract more talented candidates to the profession and encourage those currently in classrooms to continue their careers in New York City public schools. We can pay for this increase by eliminating incentives that have nothing to do with effectiveness – like salary increases for extra courses that don't impact teaching quality.

While we're investing in effective teachers, we should make sure that ineffective teachers show tangible improvements or leave the system. The City currently pays approximately 1,200 teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool $144 million per year not to teach full time. Many of these ineffective teachers have disciplinary records and few actively look for new positions. We should stop paying these people not to teach, but rather than force them back into classrooms – as the UFT is pushing to do – we should set a time limit for the ATR pool. If an ineffective teacher goes an entire year without finding placement in one of the thousands of open positions, it's time for that person to move on to a new profession.

Based on their rhetoric over the first 100 days, it seems like the mayor and chancellor believe that our school system's chronic problems can be solved by more collegiality and less academic rigor. This comes up woefully short of what it will take to make schools better for the hundreds of thousands of struggling students this system is failing each year.

We hope that the next 100 days will bring more specific plans of action, and we strongly encourage the mayor and chancellor to focus their efforts on a new teachers contract that values outstanding teachers, protects our kids from ineffective ones, and provides city students with the high-quality instruction they need to be successful in school and beyond.

Jenny Sedlis is the Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY


Categories: State/Local

A Post-Budget 'Big Ugly'?

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:00am

New York legislative leaders celebrate their recent budget deal (AP)

Some years, the state budget is home to the "big ugly," a package of unrelated legislation cobbled together last minute through back room deal-making. Typically, the deal allows members of both legislative houses and the governor to claim victory for passing their favored pieces of legislation and lets those expected to oppose certain measures avoid the heat for permitting the bills to be passed. 'Big ugly' deals are usually decried for ramming controversial legislation through in one massive eleventh-hour budget vote without time for proper debate.

This year, the budget may be known more for what it did not include than for what it did. Major issues like significant campaign finance reform, the women's equality agenda, the DREAM Act and "Vision Zero" traffic safety initiatives were left in the back rooms, much to advocates' chagrin. But never fear! There is always room for a post-budget, end-of-session 'big ugly,' especially likely in 2014 thanks to outcry over the budget's shortcomings and the fact that it is an election year.

Gotham Gazette takes a look at some of the major pieces of legislation that could be addressed this session post-budget, along with several smaller items that would have an impact on New York City residents. The State Senate is back in session on April 23rd and the Assembly is back in session on April 28th. The session concludes June 19th.

Campaign Finance Reform
The Cuomo administration was surprised by the backlash from editorial boards and activists across the state to the lack of comprehensive campaign finance reform in the budget deal.

State Senator Jeff Klein has been working behind the scenes to piece together a deal on a more robust campaign finance system than the minimal pilot program included in the budget that only applies to this year's comptroller race. Klein may be extra motivated because of pressure from groups that are threatening to pour cash into a primary challenge by former New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell. Koppell has stated that he won't decide whether to run until after the Easter holiday, a delay that could give Klein more time to reach some sort of agreement with his Republican partners in the Senate.

Just how real Klein's proposal is depends on whom you are speaking with. Those allied with Klein say his effort is sincere and has the attention of Senate Republicans, who understand they need to protect Klein from a primary in order to keep their governing coalition together. Senate Democrats doubt that Klein can convince Republicans to accept a new campaign finance system even if it is not directly funded by taxpayer money, but by unclaimed funds or settlements won by the State. Republican hesitancy is due to their believing a new public matching system could further endanger their hold on control of the Senate.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has signaled to advocates that he is willing to push harder for campaign finance reform as his office tries to regain its footing after being blasted for the budget deal, including the abrupt end of the Moreland Commission.

Vision Zero
Transportation advocates are gearing up to push Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Vision Zero" traffic safety initiative in Albany. There are several bills in both houses that would allow the City to increase its number of speed cameras from 20 to 160, decrease the city speed limit to 25 or 20 m.p.h. from 30, and increase penalties for causing traffic fatalities. Sen. Martin Dilan, who is the Senate sponsor of the bill to reduce the speed limit to 20 m.p.h. told Gotham Gazette he believes a larger deal on these initiatives will come together quickly when legislators return to session. Dilan's spokesman, Graham Parker, said that Dilan's district has seen an increase in traffic fatalities and that there is a real sense of urgency there.

Keeping Inmates Near Home
Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who both hail from the Bronx, are pushing a bill to create a pilot program that would keep inmates in jails closer to their families so that relatives would not have to travel hours upstate to see them. Rivera points out that, for some families, that kind of travel prevents them from seeing incarcerated relatives and notes that studies have shown that staying connected to family while in prison reduces the chances of recidivism.

"I'm tired of hearing that one of my constituents has to drive five hours to see their mother," said Rivera. It seems unlikely that the bill would pass through the Senate, as Republicans are protective of upstate prisons. However, multiple sources tell Gotham Gazette that there are ongoing discussions between the Department of Corrections and the executive branch, and that Cuomo could issue an executive order to implement a similar plan.

The Cuomo administration was rebuffed in its efforts to create a State-funded college-for-inmates program earlier this year. The plan was seen as a nod to black and Hispanic City legislators who feel Cuomo isn't paying enough attention to issues that impact their constituents. This could be an alternative move to address those concerns. A spokesperson for the Cuomo administration declined to comment on a possible executive order. 

Medical Marijuana
Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried of Manhattan are pushing legislation that would allow doctors and physicians' assistants or nurses to prescribe marijuana to those with life-threatening or debilitating conditions. The state Health Department would issue licenses to dispensaries. The bill has major support from advocates who have made their presence felt in Albany, but Senate Republicans oppose the measure. Earlier this month Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who supports the idea, said he thought the issue was dead because of Republican opposition in the Senate. But Savino insisted that she intends to move the bill. Silver clarified that he would pass the bill, as the Assembly has over the past few years, if the Senate takes action.

Around the same time, Savino invoked measures that will push her bill to a vote even though Senate leaders don't support it. Savino told Gotham Gazette earlier this month that she has the votes to pass the measure when it comes to the floor.

Even if the bill does pass both houses, it seems unlikely that the governor would sign it. Cuomo supports a plan whereby he would use executive action to permit 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana to patients in their care. The medical marijuana would come from confiscated product obtained in criminal busts. Cuomo has made it clear that he does not support full legalization. Critics of the governor's plan insist that confiscated marijuana will not have the same effects as pharmaceutical grade and that there is no need to study the benefits of medical marijuana when its benefits have been demonstrated across the country.

The "Boss Bill"
Sen. Liz Krueger from Manhattan and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee of Suffern are pushing a bill in their respective houses that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against their employees based on their reproductive choices. The bill comes in response to hundreds of lawsuits filed by employers in federal court in an attempt to get out of a provision of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that requires they provide insurance plans that pay for contraception.

"With the full Women's Equality Act stalled by the bizarre politics of the Senate, and with employers going out of their way to cut off women's access to contraception, here's the question: can this legislature act to protect women at all?" asked Krueger in a statement. "In New York, in the 21st century, no boss should be able to tell employees whether they can have access to birth control. This bill to protect a woman's basic right to make her own decisions about contraception, free from reprisals, should pass quickly in both houses. It would send a deeply disturbing message if it doesn't."

Krueger told Gotham Gazette earlier this month that she was further moved to support the bill after hearing from a number of constituents who were admonished by their employers about their pregnancies because they weren't in "traditional" relationships. It seems unlikely the bill will pass in the Senate this session, as some Senate Republicans have moved toward the right heading into the election year and not all Democratic senators support the bill. The bill remains in the Assembly's labor committee.

Rent Sabotage
Sen. Martin Dilan and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, both from Brooklyn, say that there has been a rash of apartment sabotage by landlords in their districts as property values rise. Rents have increased by 15 percent in some districts and as a result some landlords of rent-stabilized apartment buildings have taken to doing major physical damage to these apartments in an effort to drive tenants out and take the apartments off the rent control rolls.

Apartments can come out of rent control when the rents reach $2,500. The Dilan-Lentol bill would create a class D felony for landlords who do physical damage to apartments in an attempt to drive tenants out. Jaron Benjamin of the Metropolitan Council on Housing says the bill is a good first step to combating the problem but his group is preparing for next year when rent control laws will be up for renewal. Benjamin wants vacancy decontrol to be done away with so that apartments will stay affordable. "We get calls everyday on our tenant hotline from people who are worried that a landlord is destroying their apartment or have and won't come back to fix it," said Benjamin. "The idea of having real penalties beyond fines is a good thing because right now they stand to gain by driving tenants out and paying the fines."

The Women's Equality Agenda and the DREAM Act
Both the Women's Equality Agenda, a ten-point plan that would fight pay discrimination, sex trafficking, and sexual harassment, and, most controversially, codify Roe vs. Wade in New York State's health code and the DREAM Act, which would provide college tuition assistance to the undocumented, have been defeated in the state legislature and show few signs of life.

While Hispanic and other legislators and supportive advocates are unlikely to give up on the DREAM Act, a path forward for the legislation is unclear.

Meanwhile, on the Women's Equality Agenda being brought back to the Senate for a vote, one legislator said, "It's so far away from the table that no one knows where they put it." But, expect groups such as NARAL Pro Choice to draw more attention to the issue as the session comes to a close; they plan to make the equality agenda a major election issue, and it could play into control of the Senate.

Chances of a Big Ugly
Although an end-of-session 'big ugly' is possible, many legislators feel that it will be increasingly difficult to move anything of significance as the session winds down and election season picks up. The IDC appears poised to challenge some sitting Democrats, while Democrats may get involved in primaries against IDC members. Republicans are confident they can win back Senate seats because this is not a year of big national races that could boost Democratic turnout. Meanwhile, Cuomo continues a balancing act between right and left that he seems to hope will boost his re-election numbers and set him up for a possible presidential bid in 2016. All perhaps leading to legislative paralysis.

"We got more done during the Senate coup," said one advocate, "Who would have imagined we would be in this position with the Senate? But that's life on Planet Albany."

by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette


Categories: State/Local

Building Back, Hiring Local

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/18/2014 - 1:00am

Mayor de Blasio making a prior Sandy recovery announcement (

In September 2013, then-candidate Bill de Blasio made a mayoral campaign trip to the Rockaways, a region in Queens hit hard by Superstorm Sandy the prior year. De Blasio gave an impassioned speech vowing that, if elected, he would ensure that the jobs needed to rebuild the battered community would be filled locally.

"To me, the perfect equation is to have people building the houses they, and their neighbors, will one day occupy," de Blasio told the congregation at St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church on September 29, 2013.

Thus far, not many homes are being built. The Build it Back program, created by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and continuing under de Blasio, has been the target of serious fire in recent months. When Bloomberg left office on December 31, 2013, construction had not started on a single Build It Back home. As of Thursday, April 17 that number had jumped to just nine. The de Blasio administration could not confirm the number of local residents working on those building sites, but did say there were some.

To fix the Build it Back program, de Blasio ordered his Sandy recovery leadership team to deliver a diagnostic report and offer a new way forward. The report, entitled "One City, Rebuilding Together," was unveiled at the Build it Back headquarters on Staten Island on Thursday.

During the press conference, de Blasio reiterated his commitment to hiring local workers, announcing he is creating a new position focused entirely on workforce development and the employment of local residents. The position, which has not yet been filled, will report to Amy Peterson, the director of the Housing Recovery Office.

"We want to build a high quality, local workforce to play a part in the process," de Blasio said to claps and cheers from the residents on hand for the announcement. "If anyone deserves some of the employment opportunities in the recovery process, it is New Yorkers who were affected by Sandy."

While the promise of hiring local plays well to the crowd, it is in fact a requirement by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) - a department de Blasio served in during the Clinton administration. According to the HUD website, its Section 3 program requires that when financial assistance is given (as in the case of Sandy recovery), low-income local residents are provided with job training, employment, and contracting opportunities.

The program stipulates Section 3 residents must make up at least 30 percent of new hires on the building projects, however, if a contractor or developer chooses not to make any new hires on a job site, they would still be in compliance with the law without hiring local residents.

Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a citywide coalition advocating for local jobs and more affordable housing in Sandy-impacted areas, sent de Blasio a plan recommending 30 percent of each crew, not just new hires, be Section 3 eligible to protect against the loophole. While it is a change the administration can make, it is not a suggestion they are currently committing to.

"Right now the requirement is for new jobs," Peterson said by phone Thursday. "We will be working to ensure we get as many people into local jobs as possible, but we are not making a wage change at this point."

Technically, the federal requirements are up to contractors to fulfill, but the de Blasio administration will be operating with a hands-on approach. Thursday's report noted the administration would be working with community organizations and labor unions to recruit local residents for work and training programs.

Utilizing community groups to find and train local workers is a process already used by developers on projects (many of which are subsidized) around the city. It is also a process Peterson is familiar with. Prior to her current role she was president of Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a New York City organization that trains and places women in the skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades.

Peterson said she expects to select three community organizations to work with, one in each major area affected by the storm. She added that that number could increase if needed. The organizations will be chosen from those that have already been helping on the ground in Sandy-impacted areas.

Residents will be able to go to these groups and receive Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training, help with resumes, or if they are already trained, simply explore job opportunities. For residents not properly trained, these organizations will work with unions to get people into pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship programs. These programs typically last several years, with both classroom and on-the-job training in a variety of trades.

Eric Bluestone, a partner at the Bluestone Organization, utilizes these training programs on his affordable housing projects around the city. A development company, Bluestone is currently contracted under the Build it Back program and will work to rebuild homes on Staten Island, although it has not yet started any projects.

"Historically, many of the workers came to the site and they did not have any training so they started off working primarily as laborers or laborers' assistants," Bluestone said by phone on Wednesday. "They did, for lack of a better term, the most menial tasks because they didn't have any training."

To address the issue, he said roughly eight years ago his industry began working with the building industry and education providers to train people. This would not only help them meet local hiring requirements for their projects, but also provide a service to the neighborhoods they were building in.

"Not only is it a benefit to the employer, because now they are getting someone from the community who has a better level of skill, but it is also a benefit for the community because they get career track training," Bluestone said.

He added that in some instances the residents did so well the subcontractors hired them on for other jobs.

"That is really what we want to see," Bluestone said.

Peterson said the federal money will not be used to pay for training programs but monies could be used to fund a workforce development connection organization.

Susannah Dyen, a policy coordinator for Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, explained that unions typically pay for the apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. Grants are sometimes also available, she said.

"The sizes of the apprenticeship programs are matched to how the market is growing and how much people are retiring, so if the unions and contractors know there is going to be more work down the line, they can have more apprentices," Dyen said by phone Wednesday. "By thinking about all the work that is coming down and what is the model we want for local hiring and training of New Yorkers, we can envision a system that would allow there to be more opportunities."

For de Blasio, these opportunities feed perfectly into the campaign message he pitched on his tour of the Rockaways seven months ago. While the details are not completely in focus just yet, his general vision remains.

"The ultimate goal is to reach people who were personally, specifically dislocated by the storm, either in terms of housing or employment, as much as humanly possible," de Blasio said on Thursday.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette


Categories: State/Local
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