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Cuomo maintains advantage in poll

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 1:07am


In a new Siena Research Institute poll of those likely to vote this fall, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino is down by 37 points to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. What may be of more concern to the Westchester County executive is that the gap didn't close from the June poll, even with more Republicans and upstaters in the mix.

The results show Astorino still has work to do just to become a household name, with 61 percent of voters saying they don't know him or don't have an opinion of him. Upstate, where Astorino is expected to need to capture a large majority of the vote to win, 59 percent of voters say they haven't a clue who he is or don't have an opinion of him.

Researchers used voter turnout data from the last three gubernatorial elections to devise a model for likely voters this fall. The poll was made up of 44 percent upstate voters and 30 percent New York City voters (up 9 percent and down 9 percent, respectively, from the percentage of all registered voters), with the Democratic enrollment gap narrowed from 26 percent to 18 percent for this survey, Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said. Even still, the margin between the two top candidates widened.

"The fact is, more Republicans, fewer Democrats; more upstaters, fewer New York City voters; and yet Astorino did not close the margin at all," Greenberg said.

Campaign cash could be a hindrance to Astorino building a presence. He reported just $2.4 million on hand last week, while Cuomo reported $35 million in his war chest. Astorino reported just $279,000 worth of television ad buys and no print ad purchases during the past six months. Cuomo spent roughly 17 times the amount ($4.8 million total) Astorino did on TV ads.

The silver lining for Astorino appears to be a healthy chunk — though still a minority — of New Yorkers simply ready for a change at the top. Fifty-four percent of voters say they would re-elect Cuomo, while 38 percent say they'd prefer to vote for someone else. Among Republicans and upstaters, the advantage is flipped: 61 percent of Republicans say they want to see someone else, and 52 percent of upstaters agree.

In the past two weeks, Astorino and Cuomo have traded pushes for the creation of new ballot lines. Astorino is pushing for the creation of the Stop Common Core line, which he told reporters in Albany two weeks ago would offer voters, regardless of party affiliation, an opportunity to join the movement against the standards. Last week, the Cuomo campaign announced a push for the creation of the Women's Equality Party.

As for the impact that the Common Core or Women's Equality lines would have, the poll indicates that neither is anywhere near the top issue voters are thinking about in the gubernatorial race. Just 1 percent of voters statewide (0 percent upstate) said the Common Core is the single most important issue that will determine who they support, while 0 percent of voters statewide (1 percent upstate) say women's issues are the main things they're thinking about.

"Do I think (issue-based third party lines) make a difference? No," Greenberg said. "Largely, voters are going to make decisions on candidates based on the candidate or based on the major party line they are on. Not many voters make decisions based on third, fourth and fifth party lines." • 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

First troopers' graves get new markers

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 1:07am


New York's first state troopers rode horses, bunked in rooming houses while on patrol and communicated via telephone party lines. They kept the peace during labor strife despite being outnumbered and outgunned by armed strikebreakers and company guards.

But many of the 232 original "Gray Riders" were buried in unmarked graves or plots that gave no indication they had served in the New York State Police. Retired State Police Sgt. Kevin Kailbourne is leading an effort to rectify that through his ongoing effort to mark the graves of every state trooper with a special emblem, including those of the men who became the first troopers in 1917.

"The families are very appreciative that their loved ones haven't been forgotten," said Kailbourne, a 32-year veteran from Wellsville, Allegany County.

Kailbourne and Trooper Tom Mungeer, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State Troopers, have identified the graves of more than 200 of the original 232 troopers.

Kailbourne started his project in western New York in the late 1990s and was able to devote more time to it after retiring at the end of 2004. Since then, 66-year-old Kailbourne has compiled a database of some 3,200 deceased troopers, including 210 of the original Gray Riders, so named for the color of their uniforms.

Categories: State/Local

Closing the 'Legal Gaps' on Chokeholds: A Council Member's Proposal

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 1:00am

A march after Eric Garner's death (photo: Debbie Egan-Chin/Daily News)

The tragic death of Eric Garner, 43, while being arrested on Staten Island last Thursday has led to renewed scrutiny on the use of chokeholds by members of the NYPD. While chokeholds have been fully banned by the NYPD since 1993, one was used on Garner by police officer Daniel Pantaleo during the altercation that led to Garner's death. As questions are raised about charges that might be brought against Pantaleo, New York City Council Member Rory Lancman is offering his proposal for what the Council should do to close gaps between the NYPD ban on chokeholds and New York law.

In an op-ed published today in New York Law Journal, Lancman, an attorney and former member of the state Assembly, and his counsel Daniel Pearlstein offer two ways in which the City Council could pass legislation aimed at both further discouraging the use of chokeholds by police officers and civilians and making prosecution of those who use them more likely and potent. The authors were spurred, they write, by the "operational failure" of the NYPD to stamp out chokeholds twenty-plus years after their ban and the "legal system's failure to effectively deter chokeholds."

The first suggestion by Lancman and Pearlstein is for the City Council to simply write a local law that prohibits the use of chokeholds. Base the law on the NYPD's internal rules which ban chokeholds altogether, and make their use a misdemeanor offense, the two write. Currently, even a recently enacted (2010) state law aimed at preventing and criminalizing chokeholds "requires proof of intent to obstruct breathing or blood circulation."

Lancman and Pearlstein's second suggestion is "broader," the authors write, as it is for the Council to close a loophole in state law by creating a "new municipal offense of criminally negligent infliction of physical injury." According to Lancman and Pearlstein, this would give prosecutors "a new tool" to deter the use of chokeholds and other restraints that put people at great risk of harm, including death. As is, state law "fails to capture the unacceptably risky and unpredictably harmful consequences of submitting someone to a chokehold."

To arrive at their proposal, Lancman and Perlstein trace the history of major chokehold-related cases in New York over the past thirty years as well as relevant aspects of NYPD protocol and New York law. Of special focus is the 1994 case wherein Anthony Baez was choked to death by police officer Francis Livoti in the Bronx. Lancman and Perlstein offer that the Livoti case offers a challenging "road map" for the Staten Island district attorney in his investigation of Garner's death.

Analyzing legal precedent around the use of chokeholds and anticipating charges against Pantaleo being filed, Lancman and Perlstein identify key places by which the NYPD patrol guide, state law, and federal law do not align. They then offer ways in which the City Council can legislate to bridge those gaps and thus, they argue, decrease the likelihood that chokeholds will be used and that those who use them and cause serious injury or death will go without sufficient punishment.

In the aftermath of Garner's death, police commissioner Bill Bratton has promised to review NYPD training around how officers take people into custody. While local investigations into the circumstances of Garner's death and the actions of police officers and EMTs on the scene are ongoing - it also appears evident that a federal probe into Garner's death is likely.

A husband and father of six, Eric Garner was laid to rest on Wednesday evening during an emotional and charged ceremony on Staten Island.

by Ben Max, Executive Editor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

State Rules on Use of Campaign Cash Remain Unclear, Unenforced

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 1:00am

Gov. Cuomo used campaign funds to buy Super Bowl tickets (photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

The results of New York State's lax campaign finance restrictions and dreary enforcement by the state Board of Elections (BOE) were on full display last week thanks to campaign filings that show lawmakers continuing to use their collected campaign funds to pay for expensive legal defenses, visits to tanning salons, and lavish trips to swanky restaurants and exclusive clubs.

Perhaps most striking, lawmakers spent over $300,000 in campaign cash on their legal defenses over the last six months, according to filings with the BOE. Those looking to clean up Albany, good government groups and certain legislators not prone to such expenses among them, are continually frustrated by the limited restrictions on non-campaign-related expenditures, as well as BOE's minimal enforcement of those rules.

The state BOE issues opinions on what campaign cash can be spent on and while it has ruled in individual cases that spending on legal defense and personal items are not acceptable it has not shown motivation to regularly enforce its rulings. In certain cases, like Opinion 87-1 from July 29, 1987, the BOE's logic seems to be that the only viable expenditure of campaign funds for legal expenses is to keep a candidate on the ballot - not to protect a candidate from criminal charges or to pay fines.

But the BOE has a long history of not acting on even the most egregious violations of campaign finance law. "The law certainly should be clear as the board has a decent track record of making clear what is permissible use in the '80s - they just haven't touched on it recently," said Bill Mahoney of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "They have shown no will to enforce their own findings."

Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for Citizens Union, another good government group, says that enforcement is the biggest issue. "Even with the opinions that are on the books there simply isn't any enforcement," she said.

State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, an ardent supporter of campaign finance reform, said that politicians who abuse the loopholes of the campaign finance system are more likely to need to spend campaign cash on lawyers. "The ones who take advantage of the law are the ones who will most likely use campaign funds for their legal defense," Hoylman said. "We need a ban (on personal use of campaign contributions)."

Hoylman believes the BOE needs to be overhauled. "I'd like to see wholesale reform of the Board of Elections," he said. "I don't have any confidence they have the wherewithal to enforce regulations and laws. I see it on the local level and the state level - they need help."

Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Assembly Member Vito Lopez spent big cash in the last six months to defend themselves in a sexual harassment case brought by former Assembly interns. Filings show Silver spent $30,000 in campaign cash on his defense, while Lopez paid his lawyers $13,500.

This isn't Silver's first time using campaign cash to defend himself. Since being elected in 1976 Silver has spent a total of $285,000 in campaign cash on legal defense according to Mahoney of NYPIRG.

Assembly Member Michael Kellner has spent nearly $20,000 of his campaign cash defending himself from sexual harassment charges since last year. 

Indicted Democratic Sens. Malcolm Smith and John Sampson have both seen their campaign coffers dwindle as legal expenses mount and they head into their reelection bids.

Those legislators' numbers pale in comparison to the real heavyweight legal spenders like former Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who spent $1,505,989 on his successful legal defense, or former Sen. Carl Kruger, who has dropped $1,761,663 to unsuccessfully defend himself from corruption charges. Despite spending all that cash and actually being behind bars, Kruger still has more cash in his campaign coffers than most Senate Democrats - according to last week's filing, his account contains $422,755.

In total, state elected officials have spent well over $7 million of campaign funds on legal fees since 2004, according to Mahoney of NYPIRG.

The lax restrictions on use of campaign funds benefits incumbents," said Mahoney. "If you can spend one night to raise $20,000 to either keep yourself in office or for personal use then why not do it?"

Recent action by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara indicates that lawmakers may have even more opportunity to spend campaign funds on their legal defenses, as it appears he is targeting the illegal use of campaign cash.

Candidates are required to report campaign expenditures over $50. According to a report by City & State NY, the now-defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption had decided to look into lawmakers who accrued $10,000 or more in unitemized receipts. A number of legislators either didn't report large campaign expenditures or reported lump sum, unitemized credit card payments. Bharara appears to have now picked up that trail.

New York's restrictions on personal use are so lax, though, that even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has slammed the current campaign finance system, felt comfortable spending $2,400 of his over $35 million campaign war chest on tickets to the Super Bowl.

With Bharara picking up the pieces of an investigation started by Moreland, some of the fun may be coming to an end. Cuomo abruptly ended the commission in exchange for some legislative reforms during budget negotiations this year. Shutting down Moreland raised red flags for Bharara and his office is now investigating both the legislators who were targeted by Moreland and the commission and its relationship with Cuomo. The New York Timesreported last week that Bharara's office has subpoenaed the top aide to the executive director of the Moreland Commission to testify before a grand jury and that Cuomo's counsel has agreed to be interviewed by agents in August. The Timesreported this week that Cuomo's administration repeatedly meddled in Moreland business before the governor disbanded the commission.

The reforms Cuomo won include tweaks to the criminal code to make it easier for prosecutors to go after bribery, a new head of enforcement at the BOE named by the Governor, and a public campaign financing pilot program. Mahoney says the new enforcement position created in Cuomo's deal is impotent. "The position has very limited powers and can't act without board approval," said Mahoney. "The board has already shown that it isn't interested in approving investigations."

Meanwhile, according to sources and multiple reports, Bharara's office is investigating suspicious campaign spending by a swath of sitting legislators. So far the focus has been on Senate Republican George Maziarz of Niagara County, who abruptly announced his retirement just as feds subpoenaed one of his aides. Bharara's office is looking into a number of checks written to cash from the Maziarz campaign account, as well as thousands of dollars in purchases at Southern Living At Home, a company where Maziarz campaign treasurer Laureen Jacobs used to work.

Maziarz had been acting as though he would be seeking re-election up until the very last moment before petitions were due earlier this month. With an extraordinarily large $1.1 million campaign account for a rank-and-file legislator who never faced any stiff challenges to his seat, Maziarz could use the cash should Bharara's investigation lead to an indictment. Maziarz has insisted that he is retiring to help plan his daughter's wedding.

The Times Unionreported last week that Bharara is also looking at the campaign spending of Westchester Republican Sen. Greg Ball. Ball reportedly spent thousands in campaign cash for travel and expenses in Mexico, Florida, and New Orleans. His campaign cash went for limousines, airline tickets, a $700 hotel stay at a Hilton in Mexico, and hundreds withdrawn from an ATM in Cancun. Ball announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. He then promptly spent $25,000 on a high profile defense attorney.

The Moreland Commission focused a great amount of attention on the failing of the State BOE and issued a report recommending a complete overhaul of the state's campaign finance system with the introduction of public financing of campaigns. That recommendation was not taken up last session - instead Cuomo cut a deal with legislators that created a pilot program for publicly-funded campaigns in this year's comptroller race.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who had long called for making his office a pilot for public financing, was so displeased with the last-minute deal that he felt was incomplete and opted out.

There is one lone candidate in the state with any real restrictions on personal use of campaign cash: Republican comptroller candidate Bob Antonacci, who opted into the pilot program. Under the program, participating candidates receive matching public dollars for certain campaign contributions - but with a catch: the BOE reviews campaign expenditures to make sure they are used strictly for campaigning.

State electeds will have an increasingly regular schedule of campaign finance reporting as the elections near. There are three upcoming primary reporting dates: August 8 and 29, and September 19; and three general election filing dates: September 29, October 20, and November 27. While the filings become more frequent, other requirements don't change.

Expect more campaign finance-related drama before election day - Bharara has had great success prosecuting corruption in Albany and it appears he has a new treasure trove to explore.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

U.S. cities differ on shelter for children

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am


As thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children have poured into South Texas, community leaders from Dallas to Los Angeles to Syracuse, have offered to set up temporary shelters to relieve the Army bases, holding cells and converted warehouses at the border.

The outreach offers stand in sharp contrast to other places around the country, where some protested having immigrants from Central America come to their towns while the nation's leaders attempt to find solutions to the issue.

In Dallas County, Judge Clay Jenkins has offered three county buildings that could hold as many as 2,000 migrants at one time.

"These are just like your and my children, except that they're scared and they're dirty and they're tired and they're terrified," Jenkins said. "We can take some pressure off those border troops and let them get out of the childcare business and back into the border security business."

More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October, the Border Patrol says. Three-fourths of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and say they are fleeing pervasive gang violence and crushing poverty.

By the time they have reached South Texas, they have survived a treacherous journey through drug-war-torn Mexico.

President Obama has asked Congress to authorize $3.7 billion in emergency spending to increase enforcement at the border, build more facilities to temporarily house the unaccompanied minors, and beef up legal aid.

"We're not telling the political leaders how they long-term resolve the crisis," said Rich Eychaner, the founder and director of an eponymous nonprofit aiming to find foster homes in Iowa for 1,000 migrant children. "We're simply saying there are a lot of resources, there are a lot of big hearts, there are a lot of big homes in Iowa, and we have space, and we have the capacity to do this."

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has said offering shelter sends a false signal that people who enter the country illegally are welcome.

Categories: State/Local

Governors tie in river rafting race

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am

Indian Lake

The governors of New York and Vermont had a trash-talking splash fight before paddling the bucking waves of the Indian River as part of the second annual tourism-promoting Adirondack Challenge on Sunday.

At a late afternoon awards banquet at Gore Mountain Ski Center in nearby North Creek, Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy declared that the friendly contest between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, both Democrats, had ended in a 19-minute, 20-second tie.

"Imagine that, a dead tie," said Cuomo. "I thought I had a world record."

A total of 21 six-person rafts ran the three-mile course in Indian Lake, about 80 miles north of Albany. Teams included state legislators, city mayors, regional economic development people and other community leaders from around the state. All heaped praise on Cuomo for his efforts to promote a region where there's long-standing resentment of Albany's perennial focus on downstate interests.

"I've taken to calling him our No. 1 tourism promoter," said Sen. Betty Little, a North Country Republican.

"This is really about growing jobs and economic opportunity in the North Country," Shumlin said. "What's good for the Adirondacks is also good for the Green Mountain state. When you prosper, we prosper."

"There's still a disconnect between upstate and downstate," said Senate Majority Co-Leader Jeff Klein of the Bronx, whose raft team won the "City Slickers Award" at the banquet. "This shows we're one New York. We thank the governor for doing that."

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am

If the weekend's schedule is any indication, things are about to get a whole lot busier as summer continues to heat up. Rob Astorino was in western New York, as was Kathy Hochul. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was challenging some of the state's top leaders and a host of others in the Adirondacks. A busy weekend will give way to a somewhat light week in Albany, though with campaign season getting into full swing, it's sure to be busier in locations across the state. Here's what's on tap:


If you're willing to venture outside of Albany for the morning, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will address the Teamsters Conference at 10 a.m. at the Fort William Henry Resort and Conference Center, 48 Canada St., Lake George.

The first meeting about the broadband availability enhancement component of the Smart Schools Initiative will be held at 1 p.m. in the Blue Room on the second floor of the State Capitol.

A tourism workshop on "Becoming China Ready" aims to help local officials and businesses attract tourists from the other side of the world. It takes place from 2 to 7 p.m. at Empire State Plaza's Meeting Rooms 4 and 5.


The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets at 10:30 a.m. at its office on Broadway. The meeting will be livecast at

— Matthew Hamilton, Casey Seilder and

Categories: State/Local

Cozy again, and richer?

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am


Think of it as political remarriage, one that involves the commingling of two complex estates and a November wedding that requires detailed planning. As the big day approaches, future plans are being discussed. What doesn't appear to be on the table is any premarital sharing of bank accounts.

And so it is with the state Senate Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference, set to reunite as a new coalition after four years apart. While both sit on millions of dollars in cash that could help them collectively win a majority in the chamber and close down the Republican Party's last bastion of statewide power, it appears that overall Democratic Party unity could be more significant in getting out the vote than any pooling of Senate Democratic resources.

The Senate Democrats reported Tuesday just more than $1 million in their war chest, a turnaround from the past few years of debt. With their ranks down to 24 members, that cool million in cash has left Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Gianaris feeling optimistic.

"The real question is, what does $1 million at this point in the cycle mean? We still have several months to go of aggressive fundraising that's going to add to that," Gianaris said, adding that Democrats are now nearly $2 million ahead of the debt they had in the last election cycle while Republicans are off the pace from their 2012 numbers. "And in 2012 we won every single race where we were in competition," he said.

The pending reunion with the IDC would appear to make available more than $2 million in pooled resources between the Democrats' campaign committee and the IDC's political action committee. But the math is more complicated than simple addition: Because it is a PAC, "The IDC Initiative" is limited to donating only $10,300 at a time for the general election.

Sharing funds of such relatively low sums may not be enough to make a dent in the marginal turnout needed to shift the vote in swing districts. Republicans boast nearly $4 million in their main account; on average, GOP members are sitting on roughly $400,000 more than their colleagues across the aisle.

While the IDC is handcuffed in the amount it can donate to candidates or the DSCC, it could spend on other useful tools in far higher increments. It could, for example, pay for polling on key issues to see where voters stand in swing districts.

There's also a matter of how wounds from the breakup might keep the two from making their cash too cozy.

"They're still probably working on building the trust factor between the two of them," said political consultant Bruce Gyory. "Working together on this could either enhance that trust factor or break it down. You don't know."

Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said this week that she and Klein have spoken about adding to the number of progressive voices currently in the Senate. The Democrats and the IDC have both backed down on their support for challengers to incumbents from the other conference.

How exactly Republicans will spend their money is a matter of secret strategy.

Larry Levy, dean of Hofstra University's Center for Suburban Studies, said there is little doubt that Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos will push incumbents in safe districts to invest significant gobs of campaign cash in competitive races.

Among the most competitive battlegrounds in the war for control of the Senate is Long Island, where two open seats are seen as up for grabs. Republicans have long held a tight grip on the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk counties. But with Charles Fuschillo's departure on the final day of 2013 and Lee Zeldin running for Congress, some say that grip could be loosening.

Extra money could become more important in those races, as well as additional toss-ups involving incumbent Republicans (Sen. Jack Martins' 7th District seat has repeatedly been labeled as one that could flip), though candidates will more importantly need to remain advocates for their voting base.

"If the Democrats — mainline or IDC — want to win, they've got to invest in these communities," Levy said of suburban bastions like Brookhaven and Islip, "then let the local candidates run on the issues they feel matter."

A massive infusion of Democratic money could backfire, though: Republicans have repeatedly blasted New York City Democrats as the ones who would control the majority-to-be. In a statement following the announcement by longtime Republican Sen. George Maziarz that he wouldn't run again, Skelos said "the last thing hardworking taxpayers want is an all-Democrat, all-New York City-run state government free to push their liberal tax-and-spend agenda on the people of New York."

Levy said the challenge for candidates is fighting the feeling from both Republicans and Democrats alike on the island that if elected, Democrats will just be controlled by the New York City powers.

Regardless of where the money comes from, spending by the party as a whole on a coordinated attack by all Democrats, not just those in the Senate, may be the key to claiming a majority of the kingdom.

"The more people we have pulling in the same direction, the more successful we will be," Gianaris said. "That's why the unprecedented amalgam of supporters we have is increasing our momentum. It's not just the governor, not just the IDC, not just our conference, but it's also all of the major labor leaders throughout the state making a Democratic Senate their priority this year ... There are dozens of labor organizations that are also putting wind in our sails as we try to organize a successful campaign season."

"It's not just money," Gyory said. " ... Who has the best field operation to both drive the message and then get out the vote?" • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Firms asked to disclose political spending

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am


New York's $176.2 billion pension fund for public workers this year has proposed that 29 corporations more thoroughly disclose their political spending.

Three have agreed to do it: Comcast, Peabody Energy and CF Industries.

New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the fund's trustee, said Friday the proposal has received majority approval despite board opposition at Valero Energy and Dean Foods. At six others, it got at least one-third support.

The proposal calls for reporting of spending on candidates, political parties, ballot measures and direct or indirect state and federal lobbying. It also would require the companies to report spending that goes to any trade associations for political purposes. The resolutions are non-binding but can sway corporate boards.

"Spending shareholder dollars on politics can be a risky business. When it's done in the shadows it may result in spending that is contrary to the company's long-term interests and cause real damage to a company's reputation," DiNapoli said Friday. "We hope and expect that companies will respond to shareholders' overwhelming desire for disclosure and take the appropriate steps."

Categories: State/Local

Door stays shut on donors' names

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am


Four New York advocacy groups won't have to reveal the identities of contributors to their political activities.

A judicial hearing officer has determined that the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics acted incorrectly when it rejected donor-disclosure exemptions requested by the progressive organizations Family Planning Advocates, the Women's Equality Coalition and the New York Civil Liberties Union, as well as the conservative group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms.

The decision was made July 11 by Judicial Hearing Officer George C. Pratt, whose decision called JCOPE's rejection "clearly erroneous" and contrary to the legislative intent of the 2011 law allowing for the exemptions. That measure — which also created JCOPE — says disclosure exemptions can be given if donors might suffer "harm, threats, harassment or reprisals" from public knowledge of their support to specific entities.

It's the first time a JCOPE determination has been overturned on appeal in the watchdog panel's two-and-a-half-year history, according to JCOPE spokesman John Milgrim.

He noted that no material would have to be blocked or expunged from the JCOPE database: During the application and appeal process, groups were entitled to withhold their records.

The controversy over the exemptions began last summer, when it was revealed that the state arm of the abortion rights group NARAL had been granted an exemption — prompting Republicans, including state Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, to complain that the watchdog panel had created a disclosure-free avenue for political giving.

In January, JCOPE said it had rejected the four applications and would require NARAL to re-reapply for its exemption this summer as opposed to the original expiration date of 2016. NARAL's Tara Sweeney said Friday the group had not been informed in any change in its status; it had previously required an extension of JCOPE's demand that it re-apply by the end of July.

Milgrim said NARAL's deadline wasn't affected by Pratt's decision.


Categories: State/Local

Providers still have questions

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:07am


The five-year, $42.8 million contract between the state Health Department and the company hired to administer the state's Early Intervention Program to help young children avoid disabilities in their later years runs more than 100 pages.

But one of the key portions, which describes Public Consulting Group's "management objectives," is blacked out.

Also covered up is a section that addresses "techniques and tools" for what the company does and the precise percentage it receives for bringing in more payments from private insurers. Much of the program is funded by Medicaid because billers look to that the state-federal health care program for the poor if private insurance won't pay for the services.

The secrecy is allowed by state laws that let government officials redact information made public that is deemed to be proprietary or that would put a private company at a competitive disadvantage if it were revealed.

"Some documents have been redacted ... to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy ... and if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise,'' Health Department records officer Elizabeth Sullivan said in an email that came with release of the contract under a state Freedom of Information Law request.

For the Early Intervention Program, health professionals such as speech and physical therapists go to the homes of young children who show signs of developmental delays. They work with the youngsters to try to get them up to speed for their age group.

Historically, each county paid participating therapists; counties would then tap Medicaid and other funds.

Last year, responsibility for administering the program was shifted to Public Consulting Group, with the intent of lifting a burden from county governments.

Providers now bill PCG for each patient rather than sending a monthly bill. That means providers, from solo practitioners to large group practices, have more paperwork.

Long Island-based physical therapist John Hofmayer said the payment process is a "bureaucracy within a bureaucracy."

"We're continuing to see agencies close," said Leslie Gruber of Queens, a speech and language pathologist and director of United New York Early Intervention Providers With Parents as Partners, which has followed the PCG contract issue.

Providers are also wondering why they can't learn how much PCG might be earning for getting more money from insurance companies. Medicaid has traditionally picked up much of the cost of EI services, but the change to PCG could get more insurers involved in coverage.

PCG could not be reached for comment.

Policies surrounding rejections can be frustrating. If a patient is turned down by PCG after a provider submits a bill, the provider has to repeat the process.

"If the insurers say no ... we have to re-apply," said Hofmayer. "That's the big issue."

Hofmayer holds out some hope, noting that PCG has said it's trying to streamline the billing process for therapists. "They are trying to work on making it easier," he said. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

City's Small Business Crisis Continues

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:00am

A closed Umberto's Clam House in the Bronx (photo: Elizabeth Zanghi/The Ram) 

Umberto's Clam House. Gray's Papaya. Union Square Cafe. These famous, long-established New York City businesses and many more are victims of circumstances advocates say come down to a lack of protections for commercial tenants. Given the recent focus on residential tenants and affordable housing, many don't realize the bitter plight of the city's small businesses, especially low-profile mom-and-pop type stores and restaurants.

And these establishments - the city's small businesses - are desperately looking for help.

Few New Yorkers can't name a favorite local business or neighborhood staple forced to close over the last several years. Bodegas, Korean markets, and Irish Pubs are now considered to be part of a dying breed - endangered species poached by high rents, corporate competitors, and real estate development deals. Large swaths of commercial areas have all but disappeared from Little Italy, Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen, and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Empty storefronts litter the five boroughs, sometimes for weeks, months, even years.

Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, told the Daily News the main reason for all the small business closings "is the one-sided process of lease renewal...Landlords either do not renew them or want to raise the rent four or five times. Often, you have to give money under the table for the lease to be extended."

The Small Business Congress (SBC) wants to change the system. An umbrella organization of private small business groups advocating for policies that will best benefit its community, SBC aims "to save the pathway to social mobility for lower income families, save the character of our neighborhoods, save our art and cultural groups, save our not-for-profits and save our middle class."

SBC Executive Vice President Steven Barrison is on full alert, emailing, "We are bleeding about 800-1,000 mom and pop stores per month in NYC! Costing us tens of thousands of jobs when you consider 7-8 jobs per store and 11,000-12,000 closings a year now! The CRISIS is real and it is here right now!"

The crisis Barrison describes has been building for decades: from 2002-2012, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure, the city's Landlord and Tenant Courts issued 83,211 warrants to evict commercial tenants, according to SBC data. SBC believes for every business that fights in court, two walk away, and estimates that at least 240,000 businesses closed and between 2.5 and 2.8 million jobs were lost (gross, not net) over the combined years of the Giuliani and Bloomberg mayoralties.

Landlords evict commercial tenants for a variety of reasons. Often, tenants fall behind paying escalating rents, but don't want to walk away from their life's work. Activists say they see a growing trend by which owners move faster to evict because they want to make space available for a corporate franchise or a bank, which can and do pay substantially higher rents.

Even though thousands of new small businesses also open every year, the odds are against their success and many close within the same year they open. Sung Soo Kim, who is president of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center (KASBSC) and has been called the godfather of New York's small business community, explains the significant obstacles against success, chief among them being high rents and operating costs. With the city's small businesses providing the large majority of jobs for New Yorkers - and establishing a gateway to the middle class, especially for immigrants and in ethnic communities - many, including Kim, wonder why little has been done by city government in the last twenty years to stem the tide of business closings, particularly of long-standing, neighborhood establishments.

"It's a crisis," agreed Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development. "There's a dramatic impact on neighborhoods, especially on lower income folks [who rely on] inexpensive stores and culture, who get priced out," Shiffman said, referring to gentrification. Shiffman says the importance of neighborhood small businesses is that they "hire locally, they contract out services, their purchases are local. A dollar recovered in the local community [means] far more than it does [from] corporations."

The city's small business community is looking to its local government to act before entrepreneurship is further stifled and every mom-and-pop store is replaced by a corporate chain, making "family business" an oxymoron.

Government Action
On June 26th of this year, New York City Council Member Annabel Palma, of the Bronx, re-submitted the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which is considered by many to be the key antidote to mass closings. The bill, which is co-sponsored by Council Members Rodriguez, Chin, Gentile and Rose, states it would "amend the administrative code of the relation to creating a small business lease program for establishing an environment for fair negotiations in the commercial lease renewal process."

While this is the first time Palma is the prime sponsor, the legislation has existed over the course of a myriad of previous sponsors and several council speakers.

Supporters say the legislation equalizes the relationship between commercial tenants and landlords to allow for fairer lease negotiations, in part by strengthening tenant protections. When an agreement is unreachable, a mediator or arbitrator would be enlisted at the parties' expense - there would be no government involvement or cost. Those behind the bill emphasize it is not commercial rent control.

"Every week I hear about another small business closing its doors because the rents are no longer affordable," Palma said in a recent statement. "I know that communities grow and change, and rental markets heat up...But there needs to be some protections for the small businesses that give character and life and jobs to these communities...That's why I have always supported the lease renewal bill."

There is, of course, another side to the issue. "The legislation represents an unconstitutional intrusion on the use and disposition of private property," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, about SBJSA.

SBC legal counsel Sherri Donovan argues, though, that "There is an entire line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that permit local authorities to enact legislation and rules as long as there is a rational basis." The SBJSA is reasonable, she said, because it promotes arbitration, which is used in "every sphere" of business. "It's not like we are taking property away from owners," Donovan said of the SBJSA.

The De Blasio Administration
There was great optimism in the small business community when Mayor Bill de Blasio was first elected. Finally, it was thought, there would be a substantive policy change after the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. De Blasio's mentor, former Mayor David Dinkins, was considered a true ally, having created the first-ever Interagency Task Force on Small Businesses. According to SBC's Barrison, the Dinkins Task Force (later disbanded by Giuliani) was successful because it included participation from all sectors and "every ethnic group," allowing business owners to work directly with city agencies.

Moreover, when de Blasio was in the City Council, he was a sponsor and vocal advocate of the SBJSA, backing it as a means to bring greater economic equality.

In a letter to de Blasio's transition team with recommendations for his then to-be-determined Commissioner of Small Business Services (SBS), the SBC wrote the selection was essential to stemming the tide of small business closings and the related job losses. SBC urged the next commissioner must have "the courage to stand up for small business owners and be a strong voice for them."

A major point of contention for SBC - particularly during Bloomberg's tenure - was that no senior official at SBS had direct experience owning or running a small business, coming instead from either big business or government. Currently, the deputy commissioner in charge of workforce development, who has had that title since 2013, previously owned two small businesses.

Quenia Abreu, president of the New York Women's Chamber of Commerce, said she wants SBS to hire as permanent staff or consultants "people who have owned small businesses so they know the tribulations and challenges."

Ultimately, de Blasio selected Maria Torres-Springer, a former executive vice president and chief of staff at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). Torres-Springer, who is of Filipino descent, also worked for the non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation and for Friends of the High Line.

Merideth Weber, director of communications at SBS said there are other ways of getting experience relevant to running SBS, arguing, "It's not necessary to have experience of a small business" and that bringing in multiple perspectives to SBS is important.

Gotham Gazette asked both Torres-Springer and Weber of SBS, a representative of NYCEDC, and the mayor's press office about specific programs in existence or being planned with a focus on job retention, especially through keeping small businesses open throughout the city.

Mayoral press secretary Phil Walzak emailed to reiterate key pieces of de Blasio's mayoral platform: "From cutting burdensome fines and helping...navigate regulatory rules to providing assistance in developing a business plan," Walzak wrote, "the City is dedicated to helping small businesses start, operate, and grow."

Earlier this month, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) announced more than 20 reforms the administration hopes will lighten the financial burden on the city's small businesses. Designed to "bring much-needed relief" by reducing the number and cost of fines, improve transparency, and even provide inspections in a prefered language, DCA commissioner Julie Menin said the agency is "committed to making our operations fairer, simpler and less onerous on law-abiding businesses." And in de Blasio's new budget, the City plans to collect eight percent less in total fine revenue over fiscal year 2015 than it collected in 2012: $789 million, down from $859 million.

For her part, Torres-Springer listed SBS' pro bono legal assistance to help with lease renewals, loans, training programs, workshops, and initiatives available to startups. According to Weber, SBS helped nearly 7,000 new businesses that opened in 2013, and NYC Business Solutions assisted 8,700 businesses with more than 13,300 free services.

"All of our services are to help businesses grow and operate," Torres-Springer said. "So in that way, a lot of programs, if not all, are to help businesses not close down."

She added that upon her taking the helm of SBS, she sees an opportunity to reassess what SBS does, better understand the reasons for business closures, and examine specific interventions that might be helpful.

Steve Null, founder of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents, doesn't see the same picture the City sees. Null asked how it could be possible that the singular city agency (SBS) tasked with helping small businesses has no job retention goals for the city's biggest employment generator. "Or even a single business program or initiative to save a single small business or a single job?" he added, expressing years of frustration.

Advocates like Null point to the number one issue facing small business owners: rent, and ask what will be done by the City to ensure more small businesses can afford the space they inhabit - with the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) pointed to time and again.

Adding to the skepticism, advocates say, is that Torres-Springer is a veteran of Bloomberg's EDC, an agency they believe either ignored or actively worked against their interests. SBC virtually begged the mayor not to choose someone who previously worked for this kind of entity. "(We) will not gain such an advocate from people who remained silent for over 20 years or people who never once advocated for the small business owners," SBC's transition letter to Mayor-elect de Blasio reads.

At the press conference announcing Torres-Springer in January, Mayor de Blasio said, "As Commissioner of Small Business Services, she will establish a new revolving loan fund to help local businesses grow, expand outreach to immigrant-owned businesses, and help launch new economic development hubs in underserved communities." De Blasio promised that under Torres-Springer's leadership, the City will deepen "our outreach to immigrant entrepreneurs long overlooked by City Hall...We will lift up every community. This will be one community. This will be one city, where everyone rises together."

While Torres-Springer has only been on the job a few short months, starting in late March, frustration with SBS remains high and advocates are waiting to see the different approach promised by de Blasio. Kim was the first and last chair of the Small Business Task Force, and believes SBS hides behind "useless programs and bureaucratic organizations controlled by special interests." The Korean-American Small Business Service Center (KASBSC), which Kim runs, is the oldest small business service center in the city. Over the past decade, SBS has never contacted KASBSC or similar organizations about the mass closings and the increasing extortion of immigrant owners, Kim said.

Not everyone is critical or skeptical of the selection of Torres-Springer. Former Brooklyn Council Member David Yassky, who chaired the Council's small business committee for four years, said of Torres-Springer, "I liked working with her. She's a terrific choice." When Yassky dealt with Torres-Springer, she was working for former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and EDC. "Even though we were not on the same side, [she was a] total professional, very smart. She is trouble-solving oriented," Yassky said.

Abreu, of the Women's Chamber of Commerce, said, "I love that she's a woman."

Null explained a systemic problem within SBS, in his view, is its poor staffing and leadership. "They have absolutely zero interest in solutions. If the structure [included] the right people with the right mandates, they would have solved all these problems," Null said.

One of the biggest changes is that SBS will become more collaborative, said Torres-Springer. "The vision moving forward," she said, "is for there to be a more consultative, ground-up planning process, that takes into account the needs of different stakeholders: small businesses, job seekers, community-based organizations."

She is particularly proud of work she did at EDC where she "championed personally" programs targeting immigrant entrepreneurs, the commissioner said. In May, SBS announced a new immigrant-owned business initiative funded by Citi. Community-based organizations will collaborate with the City to help immigrants "start, operate, and grow" new businesses. The program includes business education and counseling, and these services will be marketed to immigrant populations.

To which Null quipped, "Yes, phone people who have never owned or operated a small businesses to learn how to grow your business."

While there is no silver bullet answer to rampant small business closings, it's important to consider "the entire toolkit of services," Torres-Springer advised, adding that she is "optimistic" and the picture isn't quite as bleak as SBJSA advocates paint. SBS is taking the opportunity to examine the lifecycle of small businesses and ask why those which have struggled or closed have had such difficulty, she said.

One small business which successfully utilized SBS is the specialty food store Russ and Daughters on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a 100-year-old landmark. Co-owner Niki Russ Federman said SBS was "so helpful" by providing a point person to navigate through the relevant rules and regulations when the business expanded to include a cafe in a separate building. Russ and Daughters was also awarded an SBS workforce development grant, as they require a specialized kind of worker. "The skills are so unique," Russ Federman said of those required to staff her famous store, and the grant helped pay for the necessary training.

But Kim, who is also co-founder and president of the SBC, explained his members ask daily for assistance because the City only views them as "cash cows." He discussed the psychological damage and disenfranchisement that's been festering as a result, "There is a loss of pride, a loss of belonging, to be a New Yorker." In 2013 alone, 24 percent of Korean-owned businesses closed, Kim said.

And Kim doesn't buy the myriad of services and initiatives SBS promotes. "SBS programs are ridiculous and worthless to the majority of NYC hard-working immigrant owners," Kim said. "There is nothing more absurd," he added, "than a loan program to [businesses] who can't pay their rent."

The Coming Tell-Tale Months
Despite successful attempts by the real estate industry and its elected allies to kill the SBJSA in the past, there is hope the new 'progressive' City Council (and mayor) will act differently. The last time the bill had a hearing, in 2009, overseen by Yassky's committee, there were more than 30 sponsors.

The current chair of the Council's small business committee, Robert Cornegy is said to be working on legislation using subsidies to pay landlords to not rent-gouge. "The investments small business owners make in our communities are often part of the dynamic that helps to raise property values," Corney said. "I hope that we can create an effective incentive for commercial landlords that will give businesses greater predictability and allow them to benefit from the positive changes they help to create."

Cornegy is not currently a sponsor of the newly re-introduced SBJSA, which has just five sponsors, though Palma and others will surely be looking to add to that number over the summer.

There is some concern about the mayor because of his perceived inaction on small business issues while public advocate. As a candidate and thus far as mayor, de Blasio has focused on issues like access to capital and the burden of regulations, not directly on closings, sky-high rents, and extortion. Barrison said that If de Blasio thinks "that the biggest problems facing our small businesses were fines and lack of loans, he will continue the same anti-small business conservative Republican Giuliani/Bloomberg policies." The mayor's choices for SBS commissioner and the new deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen (a former Goldman Sachs officer, skeptics like to point out), don't bode well for change, Barrison said.

At his hearings, Yassky said he thought it was critical the City do something to fix the pervasive rent-gouging. "Not doing anything is not an option at this point," Yassky said at the time, now five years ago. "We can't allow our mom and pop businesses who create the majority of our jobs to disappear and that is what is happening."

In fact, advocates say, nothing was done and the city's small businesses have suffered. Null explained his coalition would never oppose government helping someone start a new business or access loans, that they are not opposed to SBS programs, but they feel SBS is not focused in the right direction. In the end, Null says the central problem is "the failure of not keeping successful businesses in business."

by Jillian Jonas for Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

For Rapidly Expanding Participatory Budgeting, Next Step: Tracking

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:00am

Agnes Rivera of Community Voices Heard at Wednesday's press conference (William Alatriste)

NEW YORK — In the three years since being introduced in the city, participatory budgeting's popularity among both city council members and their constituents has grown. This year, 22 council members will implement the program in their districts, more than doubling the number of members who will allow their constituents to directly decide how to spend roughly $1 million in capital funding.

The process allows youth (age 16 and up) and non-citizens, groups not part of the typical voting process, to engage in their communities in ways never done before. The engagement, praised by community groups, allows residents to become more invested in how their tax dollars are being spent and neighborhoods improved.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a transparent process from the initial meetings each cycle where the process is explained and ideas are pitched, to when ballots are cast and project winners selected. But once the ballots are cast and winning projects announced, finding out where approved projects are in the completion process is less transparent.

Because all participatory budgeting initiatives are capital projects, many involve construction of one kind or another. Some, particularly those that need design and procurement, can take years before anything is actually built. Each type of project and each agency involved has its own set of criteria and steps to getting shovels in the ground - parts of the process not regularly made public. The Parks Department, which has been ridiculed for having a particularly slow capital process, announced it would be adding project status tracking to its website this summer (as of this post, it had not been added).

The City Council launched a new participatory budgeting FAQ web page on Wednesday, but there is currently no central page on the Council website that displays a list of approved participatory budgeting projects and the status of each in the completion process.

On Wednesday when announcing the major increase in council participation in PB, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito acknowledged the lack of a tracking system as a challenge, but added it is something she wants to see to make the process more transparent.

For now, she said, it is up to individual council members to interact with agencies to ensure the money allocated is being spent properly.

On his website, Council Member Brad Lander, who along with the speaker and two other colleagues has implemented participatory budgeting since its first New York City cycle, keeps a status update of all of his district's approved projects. Lander said he keeps tabs on the projects by checking in with each agency and gives updates to the site when he has them. Lander's site and system is the exception, not the rule, though.

Technology Fix?
The Participatory Budgeting website currently has an interactive map that shows the winning projects, in addition to proposed projects that didn't make it through. Constituents unable to make the meetings in their district can propose a project and even comment on other projects.

The map was build by a local tech company, Open Plans, which has also built maps for the city's Department of Transportation. The PB map lists location, description of the project, and cost, but not a status of the project.

Frank Hebbert, director of Open Plans, said adding status information would be possible, so long as the data was provided. He said the easiest way to pull that information into the map is to have it on the City's open data portal. Hebbert suggested pulling the capital project information, such as when an agency gives approval, for all city projects, not just those funded by PB.

"Council members could use the data to find out what's going on [with their PB projects], advocates could use it, we could use it [for the map]," Hebbert said by phone Wednesday. "The same data would serve multiple uses."

Speaker Mark-Viverito said the Council has been engaging with city agencies about making that information more readily available, but conversations are ongoing.

As with most government processes, getting from the current space to the ideal situation is much more complicated than a press of the button. Processes would need to be formalized, standardized, and centralized. While not impossible, it is a big task involving many moving parts.

Up until now, the motivation to take on such a chore has not necessarily existed. But with nearly half the City Council implementing PB and ever more New Yorkers emotionally invested in capital projects in their own neighborhoods, perhaps PB will be a catalyst for further change.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local
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