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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 19

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 01/19/2015 - 12:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week began, of course, with the Martin Luther King holiday, which itself saw no shortage of political action. As for the rest of the week, we're watching the following storylines:

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo has been rolling out major policy proposals in advance of his major speech to be delivered on Wednesday in Albany. Our look at what the governor has unveiled thus far and what is still to come. On Tuesday morning Cuomo will be speaking to the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), a New York City-based business group. According to his public schedule, the governor will be previewing his 2015 infrastructure and transportation agenda at the ABNY event. Once the governor gives his budget address/State of the State speech, Republicans and Democrats in the State Legislature will respond, budget hearings will commence, negotiations will be ongoing, and speculation will be rampant. Another fun legislative session is upon us!
  • A new Siena poll is due out on Tuesday showing public opinion on the governor, the Legislature, fracking, public education, and more in New York State.
  • Once the governor has given his big speech, will he announce a date for a special election in New York's 11th Congressional District? Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan is the presumptive Republican nominee for the race; Democrats are taking more time, but could settle on a candidate any day.
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio is on a quick trip to Paris. Leaving Monday evening after giving Martin Luther King Day remarks at BAM and NAN and returning Tuesday evening, the mayor will be joining French officials and Jewish leaders to pay respects to victims of recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
  • We're expecting Mayor de Blasio's State of the City speech to be given before the end of the month, likely next week. Meanwhile, the borough presidents are beginning to give their state of the borough speeches (at least those who are giving them - BP James Oddo of Staten Island is having a Jan. 25 open house instead) - Queens BP Katz gives hers on Thursday. Others will do so in the coming weeks.
  • Demand has appeared quite high - perhaps overwhelmingly so - for the City's new municipal identification card. Now appointment-only, there is a months-long wait to apply for the card as our Samar Khurshid discovered the hard way - will the City announce new measures to speed the process up?
  • Applications of City Council discretionary funding are still be accepted; the new participatory budgeting season is ongoing; and community board applications are due to the borough presidents shortly. The City Council has its second full-body Stated Meeting of the month on Thursday. 

As always, there's a great deal happening in committee hearings at the City Council and all over the city. More detail below...

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

The run of the week in detail:

Tuesday
As mentioned, Tuesday morning the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host Gov. Cuomo, for a discussion of the governor's priorities.

On Tuesday morning, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will participate in "Council on Foreign Relations' Renewing America Series Panel: Risks and Priorities in Public Pension Plans."

Also mentioned previously, Tuesday will see the Civic Hall Open House/Grand Opening: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 156 5th Ave at 20th St, 2nd Fl. Comptroller Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other elected officials and civic leaders are expected to give remarks. [Read our look at the project, its roots and its goals.]

Tuesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Buildings for an oversight hearing regarding "Short Term Rentals – Stimulating the Economy or Destabilizing Neighborhoods?" - this, of course, refers to the controversial Airbnb.

Prior to that hearing, at 9:45 a.m. on the steps of City Hall, there will be a "rally against illegal hotels before the Housing and Buildings Committee's oversight hearing on short-term rentals" led by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, Rosie Mendez, Antonio Reynoso, Ydanis Rodriguez, Rory Lancman, Corey Johnson, Ben Kallos, and Margaret Chin; State Senator Liz Krueger; State Assembly Members Richard Gottfried, Linda Rosenthal and Keith Wright; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; and a variety of community and advocacy groups.

The City Council schedule will also include an afternoon meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation to consider "naming of 56 thoroughfares and public places" including those for Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were killed in the line of duty on Dec. 20.

There will also be an afternoon meeting of the Committee on Youth Services for an oversight hearing in relation to "Culturally Competent Afterschool Programs: Exploring how culturally and linguistically competent afterschool programs benefit youth."

On Tuesday at 10:45 a.m., "Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will launch a series of digital youth dialogues with Brooklyn students on the issue of police-community relations, in response to recent citywide tension following widespread protests of policing practices and the assassinations of two NYPD officers. The conversations will take place among young people conversing over Google Hangout, while moderators remotely pose questions to them to drive discourse; tomorrow's discourse, moderated by representatives from the Peace Institute, will be between students from Bishop Kearney High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Academy of Science and Environment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn Amity School in Sheepshead Bay, and Sunset Park High School in Sunset Park. Borough President Adams will further outline his ongoing effort to bridge the divide between police and the communities they serve; the conversations will inform a report of recommendations with the goal of advancing public safety citywide, as well as police and criminal justice reforms."

On Tuesday, "The Council for Senior Center and Services of New York City (CSCS) will host its 26th Annual Conference on Aging...Focusing on the transformation of aging, CSCS will present workshops on topics of interest to those in aging services and those serving older adults...Among the day's highlights will be remarks by Nora Super, Executive Director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging...Keynote speaker, Ana Oliveira President and CEO of The New York Women's Foundation, will discuss the strengths of older New Yorkers as anchors in their communities as well as the realities, perceptions and implications of the changing aging landscape in New York. Other speakers include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, Deputy Mayor, Health and Human Services; Corinda Crossdale, Director, New York State Office for the Aging; and Donna Corrado, Commissioner, New York City Department for the Aging."

Tuesday morning, City & State NY, in partnership with Effective NY, will host "Property Taxes and New York's Future: Solving the Fiscal Crisis of Counties." The event "will convene leaders in government, business, and advocacy...to discuss how New York can solve the fiscal crisis facing counties around the state." Featured speakers to include NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli; Mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner; and Former Lieutenant Governor, Dick Ravitch.

Mid-day Tuesday, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School will host "Ferguson Is Everywhere: Policing and the Criminalization of Communities of Color," a panel discussion covering "the non-indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases" and the national movement they have given rise to. Speakers will include Professor Alex S. Vitale and activist Linda Sarsour.

Tuesday evening at City Hall: "Council Member Mark Levine will moderate a panel discussion called "Shared Narratives, Values and Cultures of the Latino and Jewish Communities in New York City." The panel will include Assemdly Member Nily Rozic, who was born in Jerusalem and also has Argentinian heritage. Former Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferer and Hispanic Federation President Jose Calderon will also share their perspectives and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is slated to give opening remarks.

For those interested in more on IDNYC, there will be an information session/community meeting in Manhattan, on Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. at El Museo del Barrio.

Tuesday evening in Albany, City & State NY will host its annual "State of Our State Reception" on "the eve of Governor Cuomo's State of the State" address.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Manhattan Young Democrats will host a panel discussion on race and policing. The event will feature Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, activists Michael Skolnik and Linda Sarsour, Professor Christina Greer, and others.

Later on Tuesday evening, all eyes will be on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address, 9 p.m. on many networks. Several watch parties will be happening around the city, including those held by the aforementioned Manhattan Young Democrats, but also the Working Families Party (at Plan B Bar in Brooklyn) and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century (DL21C) in Manhattan.

Wednesday
Governor Cuomo will present the 2015-16 Executive Budget and give his postponed State of the State Address at the Empire State Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon.

[Read our preview of the speech. Also, read our look back at highlights and themes from Cuomo's first four State of the State speeches.]

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to discuss resolutions regarding "commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps on January 27th, 2015"; and "Declaring January 15th - 22nd of each year as Peace Week in NYC"; a meeting of the Committee on Technology for an oversight hearing regarding "Filming and Community Impacts," and to see the introduction of a new bill in relation to "requiring monthly and annual reports concerning film shoot permits"; a meeting of the Committee on Women's Issues to discuss a "resolution calling upon the United States Congress to pass legislation to protect a woman's health, her right to determine whether and when to bear a child, and her ability to exercise that right by limiting government interference with the provision of abortion services and ensuring legal, safe abortion care is available to any woman who needs it"; a meeting of the Committee on General Welfare for an oversight hearing on "Homelessness and the Implementation of the Living in Communities (LINC) Program" and to also discuss a "resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, A.2819, which would establish a hospitality gift fund for the homeless"; a meeting of the Committee on Veterans with the Committee on Small Businesses for a joint oversight hearing regarding "Supporting Veteran-Owned Businesses and Promoting Veteran Entrepreneurship." [Read our report on the subject.]

The "small cities schools lawsuit" trial is set to begin Wednesday in Albany: "After waiting six years, the parents and children in eight NY, high poverty, low wealth school districts will finally get their day in court. The plaintiffs in Maisto v. New York – known as the "Small Cities" case – are challenging New York's persistent failure to provide sufficient teachers, curriculum, reasonable class sizes, interventions for at-risk students, and other resources deemed essential for a sound basic education under the NY Constitution. The eight Small Cities districts are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica. Last month, the case was assigned to a new Judge, and a new trial date was selected.

"The Bronx Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), in partnership with NYC Council Member Andy King and NYPD's 47th Precinct, will host a "Connections" forum on Wednesday, January 21, 4 p.m. at Evander Childs High School Campus, Blackbox Theater Room, 800 East Gun Hill Rd., Bronx. "There was a time when community residents knew the officer who walked the beat in their neighborhood and that officer knew the various families and youth in the community by their first names. The purpose of the Bronx YEP Connections program is to get back to that familiarity and close the communications gap in order to create a friendlier 'connection' between the NYPD and our youth," explained Council Member King. "In addition, the forum is an opportunity for youth to learn what to do if they are stopped by a police officer and it also gives youth a chance to ask questions of their local NYPD officers.""

Our Town, in association with the New York Society for Ethical Culture will host a town hall meeting on Wednesday evening, "Pedestrians vs. Cars: Manhattan's Deadly Traffic Problem and What Can Be Done About It." The event will feature Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, Polly Trottenberg; Former Executive Director at the New York Times, Jill Abramson; City Council Member, Helen Rosenthal; Dana Lerner, Families for Safe Streets; and will be moderated by editor-in-chief of Our Town Kyle Pope.

Thursday
Thursday morning, the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host Chancellor Carmen Fariña for a breakfast event addressing the Chancellor's "priorities for improving the city's public schools and ensuring better outcomes for all students."

Also on Thursday morning, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will deliver her annual "State of the Borough" address in Colden Auditorium at Queens College.

Thursday's City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Finance regarding a bill relating to the sale of tax liens and to discuss the resolution "approving the new designation and changes in the designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget" and the second Stated Meeting of the month at 1:30 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
Friday's CityLaw Breakfast Series event at New York Law School will feature the United States Attorney of Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.

Also Friday morning The Mayor's Community Affairs Unit and the Mayor's Office of Appointments host One City Rising Together: The Role of Inclusive Leadership in Good Government at Tweed Courthouse: "Interested in making a difference and serving as a leader in City government? Meet members of City government's inner circle and network with hiring managers from different city agencies at this event. Learn why inclusive leadership teams are so important to the future of New York City and for creating a legacy of good government. Hear first-hand about the Mayor's equity agenda and his vision for the City from the men and women who are leading key aspects of his important plan...Moderated by Baruch Professor Hector Cordero-Guzmán of the School of Public Affairs, this conversation will be an exciting exchange about leadership, government, and career opportunity" and will include First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris; Commissioner Gladys Carrión, Administration for Children's Services; Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, Department of Cultural Affairs; Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, Department of Small Business Services; First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin B. Tucker, New York Police Department.

Friday's City Council schedule is a meeting of the Committee on Education jointly with the Committee on Health regarding legislation relating to "Health and safety of youth football teams" and "creation of a youth sports health and safety task force."

On Sunday morning: "What Matters Now: An LGBTQ Youth Summit" co-sponsored by Council Member Corey Johnson. "What Matters Now: An LGBTQ Youth Summit aims to engage Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Gender Nonconforming, and Queer youth from all over NYC in a day of skills building, community organizing and resource sharing. The summit will offer a variety of workshops that will cover topics that will assist LGBTQ youth in advocating for and developing safe spaces in their communities...The summit is hosted in partnership with the Office of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito & the LGBT Caucus of the NYC Council."

Also Sunday: the "Annual Staten Island Borough Hall Open House - Direct Connect Sunday": 12-3 p.m. at Staten Island Borough Hall, hosted by Borough President James Oddo. "All Staten Islanders are encouraged to come by, learn in detail about the things we have worked on this past year, our agenda for 2015, and have an opportunity to connect directly with the BP and his staff."

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

***
by Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Moving Forward with Support for Veteran-Owned Businesses

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 01/19/2015 - 12:00am

photo via @USNavy

In July of 2013 when Bill de Blasio was running for Mayor, a briefing paper was created to help bridge the cultural divide and educate all mayoral candidates on what the next administration could do to create policies helpful to military veterans in New York City.

One of the recommendations was that the next administration take the lead regarding veteran-owned small businesses and "support the development of a Veterans Business Enterprise program (VEB) through executive fiat (as a pilot program) or by working with the City Council to create legislation for the program."

The thought at that time was that especially as veterans are returning from two major wars, New York City should lead the way in creating local procurement opportunities for veteran entrepreneurs, and that by the City taking the lead, the State would more than likely follow as it did when then-Mayor Dinkins set up the city's first Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) programming over twenty years ago.

With the help of veteran business owners and advocates, who were talking to elected officials about the lack of procurement options with the City, the City Council passed Local Law 144 at the end of 2013, which required the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to conduct a study to "analyze veteran owned business enterprises and opportunities for such business enterprises in city procurement." A lack of data on the subject and general lack of understanding of veterans' issues made this study necessary and reasonable.

In early 2014, the city partnered with PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the study. After almost a year, the results were finally released last month in a report from the administration. One key question the study aimed to answer was whether the City should set goals for awarding contracts to veteran-owned businesses. Overall, the study concluded, "Given the limited pool of veteran owned companies able to do business with the City and the availability of other City certification programs like M/WBE and EBE, a goals program for veterans is not recommended at this time."

The recommendation against creating a procurement goal is disappointing as many veterans believed we had an administration which better understood our needs. At the time of the report's release, a Gotham Gazette article included some discussion of the problems with the data used.

However, the problems can be fixed. There appears to have been good intentions in putting the report together and there is a major bright spot in the list of seven recommendations for increasing outreach to veterans, better training veteran business owners (VBOs) on how to do business with the city, and creating a designation for VBOs who wish to be potential vendors with the City. These recommendations make for a very good start and where SBS and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) can now come together and proceed, beginning with this week's City Council hearing.

A short list of recommendations - gleaned from speaking with people far more knowledgable than myself on the subject at hand - to Commissioners Maria Torres-Springer of SBS and Loree Sutton of MOVA:

-Group dynamics: It appears that SBS is taking the lead on the public forums around the report and veteran-owned businesses. Anything related to contract procurement goals will go through SBS, it seems, which makes sense. But, MOVA must also be involved. It was clear at the first feedback session on the report that SBS is less than familiar with the veteran community, which is understandable, but shows the need for Commissioner Sutton and MOVA to be integrally involved. Commissioner Sutton has a better handle, of course, on the players in the community as well as the issues veterans face, which gives her the ability (by working with Commissioner Torres-Springer) to better alleviate concerns and avoid miscommunication.

-Open and honest communication: City Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee, is holding a Wednesday hearing on the report. It is essential that the commissioners and agency representatives are forthcoming and forthright. One of the most frustrating things for veterans is when we hear city officials duck questions or give non-answers. If a mistake was made, admit it and explain how we are moving on. Discuss the report's recommendations and how this report should viewed as the beginning of a road map to get to an end goal. We want to hear concrete steps.

-Planning and outreach: Be clear and communicative about what events are happening and when. Make sure that as many veterans and veteran organizations as possible know about opportunities to give feedback or attend helpful events. But also be clear about what each event is about - whether it's an event about feedback on the new report or more general support sessions for VBOs (or whatever else), it is key that flyers and other messaging are clear.

-Policy: Eventually City Hall - really Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Sutton - will decide what the end game on contract procurement goals will be. Even though this report recommends against setting a goal, that does not mean it can't or won't happen. Once again, the administration should get input from stakeholders (which it is doing) and again consider following the election year briefing paper and conducting a pilot program, which should include getting VBOs certified and then collecting further data and evaluating to see if there should be a permanent contract set-aside for veteran businesses.

Yes, there is disappointment with the report, but still room for improvement and reason for hope. By working with the recommendations made, obtaining more input from stakeholders, and furthering communication between the agencies and with veterans, we can still make New York City a far better place for veterans to not only open and expand businesses, but do much more work with and for the City.

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Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

In New Civic Tech Hub, A Family Legacy of Community Building Continues

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 01/19/2015 - 12:00am

An early Civic Hall presentation for beta members (photo: @VeronicaLudwig)

NEW YORK—On Tuesday Andrew Rasiej and his business partner Micah Sifry will open Civic Hall, a 21st century community center and event space for New York City's rapidly growing civic technology sector. The space will be a central hub where hacktivists, data geeks, and government officials can regularly meet to collaborate on ways to address civic problems—a space missing in the city until now.

For those in the civic technology arena, it comes as no surprise that Rasiej and Sifry have taken on the project. The duo started Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in 2004 as a one-day conference to bring together those interested in how the internet and technology was changing politics and governance. PDF has grown from an initial one-day conference of 200 people at the New School in 2004, to multiple two-day events in cities around the globe attended by thousands in person and online.

PDF and now Civic Hall are all about sharing ideas, solving problems, and improving government. The new space and membership to it are designed to enhance collaboration, innovation, and all the key elements of what makes the civic tech community so impactful.

Rasiej and Sifry have cultivated this community for over a decade, and now the pair will fittingly be the ones to build, open, and operate a center for the community each has become so immersed in.

But the inspiration for Civic Hall wasn't born out of a hacknight, or people bugging Rasiej and Sifry about the lack of space for people interested in civic tech. Sure, those conversations happened, but the seed was planted years earlier on two separate, but equally powerful trips to Poland.

Poland, 2004
Community centers have been in Rasiej's family for nearly a century. He just didn't know it until he was in his forties.

Rasiej had not been to his family's homeland of Poland since childhood and decided to go with his father, Steve Rasiej, to his birthplace of Nehrybka in 2004. There, father and son were driving from the two-room house without running water that the father had been born and raised in to Parish Church of Nehrybka, two miles away, where he had been an altar boy.

It was on this road where they passed a red brick building with "Community Center" painted in white on a wooden sign outside. Rasiej's father pointed to the building and said, "I laid the bricks for that building."

Rasiej was puzzled, having never heard the story growing up and asked his father to explain. Rasiej's grandfather, Zygmunt Rasiej, was a local police captain for the small township which had a mix of Catholics, Jews, and Russian Orthodox residents. He noted these groups were meeting in churches and temples to discuss local issues, but had no secular place to safely meet together.

So Zygmunt asked for funding from the government to build a local community center which would give these very different groups with equal stake in the community a place to meet. They were given enough money for materials, but not labor to build it. So Rasiej's grandfather called on his family—including Rasiej's father, who was nine years old at the time—to help build the community center. It was completed in 1936.

Shortly after the community center was erected, World War II broke out. In 1940 Rasiej's grandfather was one of the 22,000 leaders arrested and killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre and Rasiej's father was sent by the Soviets to the labor camps in Siberia. Rasiej never met his grandfather, but decades later he saw his family's legacy of community building right where it started.

"This desire to build community is in my genes," Rasiej said during a recent interview at Civic Hall, which will hold a kick-off open house on Tuesday, January 20.

"It is very moving and gratifying that Micah understands that this [Civic Hall] is actually an extension of my family's work," he added, as tears filled his eyes.

It wasn't until another trip to Poland in 2013, this time with Sifry, that Rasiej finally got the ball rolling on a community center of his own.

(Zygmunt Rasiej) 

Poland, 2013
For years civic tech enthusiasts from Warsaw had been flying to the United States and neighboring European countries to attend PDF. They asked Rasiej and Sifry for a conference to be held in Warsaw, Poland, and in 2013 the pair obliged.

Following that first PDF in Warsaw, Rasiej and Sifry had a few extra days before returning to the U.S. and decided to visit Auschwitz. The trip was very personal for both men. Like Rasiej, Sifry's family also suffered during World War II, his at the hands of the Nazis. Sifry's mother is a holocaust survivor and both his and his wife's families lost dozens of members during the war.

The visit was, for obvious reasons, very powerful for both men and initially the car ride back was quiet as they contemplated what they had seen. But as they drove further away, their thoughts slowly began to return to the real world and their most pressing question: what would they do next? They were at something of a crossroads and had what they say was a "what do we want to be when we grow up" moment in the car.

"Do we want to just keep doing a conference (PDF) and a website and being community weavers in our personal time?" Sifry said they asked themselves. "Or what can we do that is more institutionally valuable?"

With images of Auschwitz still fresh in his mind, Sifry's thoughts turned to Rasiej's grandfather's story, which he had heard before. A lightbulb went off. What about a community center for those in civic tech they had been working with for over a decade?

During their ten years in business together, Sifry said he had often bugged Rasiej about having a "store front" for their civic tech community. But the timing had never been right for a variety of reasons and the idea was always shelved.

The conversation in the car accelerated and the initial plans for Civic Hall began to take shape.

Civic Hall
The idea for Civic Hall began to become a reality shortly after that 2013 trip to Poland. The duo took their idea to Omidyar Network, Google, Ford Foundation, and Microsoft, and received initial funding. They spent a year doing research, speaking to over 150 key players in the civic tech ecosystem, not just in New York City, but around the world.

"What we were trying to figure out is what does civic tech need, what are we particularly good at doing, and what does the civic tech community in New York City, in particular, need?" Sifry said during last week's interview. "That is where Civic Hall was born."

Sifry said they looked at successful models in other cities with robust civic technology communities, including 1776 and Open Gov Hub in Washington D.C., the Berkman Center in Cambridge, and 1871 and Smart Cities in Chicago.

"One of the things we saw was that the whole ecosystem benefits when there is a central hub," Sifry said.

Chicago's co-working space, 1871, is a prime example of how a central hub has benefited the tech community. The 50,000 square foot space opened in January of 2012 and has become the most prominent co-working technology space in Chicago.

"Having that physical meeting space is valuable," Derek Eder, co-founder of Chicago's Open City hacking group and partner at DataMade, said in a phone interview last week. "The community would not be what it is without that central place."

1871 is where the Open City hacknight was based for two-and-a-half years before recently moving to a larger space (albeit in the same building). What started as a small group of like-minded civic technologists interested in solving some of Chicago's perplexing civic problems with data, has grown into the go-to place for all things civic tech.

Eder said the current Chief Data Officer for Chicago, Tom Schenk Jr., is a regular attendee of the hacknight, along with a bevy of other government officials from across multiple agencies. He said having the meeting on neutral ground, outside a government building, allows for more open and frank conversation.

"If we were all meeting somewhere on government premises, I think it would change the dynamic of how people would act," Eder said. Fully engaging, thinking creatively, and speaking candidly are all key to making such communities flow.

"That is an important thing to having the success of the community," Eder said of open, frank conversation.

Civic Hall aims to be that "safe zone" for collaboration among government and civic technologists here in New York. How much the de Blasio administration will buy in to Civic Hall remains to be seen, but it appears at the outset the administration is supportive.

"Mayor de Blasio has set forth a goal to make New York City the most tech-friendly and innovative city in the world. Collaboration with our vibrant civic tech community is vital to this success," Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco said by email. "As CTO, I look forward to working together with Civic Hall to harness the creativity of all New Yorkers to bridge the digital divide, foster an innovation economy, and incubate the next generation of government technology."

Supporting the Civic Hall endeavor is low-risk for the de Blasio administration and may be why it is willing to lend early support. Few city governments around the country are willing to build or lead an innovation project like this, largely due to their political risks.

"The capacity to use failure as a way to learn inside government is close to zero," Mark Headd, former CTO for the City of Philadelphia, said during an interview at Civic Hall last week. "[Failure] is really one of the core ingredients of innovation. You have to be able to fail without it being the end of the world."

Sifry and Rasiej openly acknowledge Civic Hall is an experiment and, like the other innovation projects they have collaborated on in the past, they are sure it will evolve to ensure its longevity. The fact they won't have the ravenous New York City press corps waiting to feast on any misstep will allow them breathing room, a luxury City Hall would likely not be afforded.

Rasiej sees Civic Hall working with or without buy-in from City Hall, although he is optimistic based on how the de Blasio administration broached tech in the new mayor's first year. He has already watched government benefit from collaboration with civic technologists on projects using MTA data and numerous successful apps coming from the City's BigApps competition.

Civic Hall will offer city agencies a place to flock when ready to enlist the help of the civic tech community, on data projects for example.

Memberships are tiered, running from $30 to $550 per month depending on how much access is desired.

"If I was still in government, I wouldn't want to have to go hunting around to try and find these people [civic technologists]," Headd said. "If I could find a place that brought them in, it would be really attractive to me."

Community building legacy
Rasiej didn't lay the physical bricks for Civic Hall, but like his grandfather did with the community center in Poland, he did have a hand in a key piece of the infrastructure—albeit a more modern version. Civic Hall is wired with blazing fast Wi-Fi, something Rasiej has long been advocating for improving everywhere.

The sign on the door at Civic Hall isn't wood or painted white. In fact, city laws prohibit signage outside of 156 Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron District, where it is located. But in the digital age, the word is spreading virtually with the hashtag #civichall, which is etched in frosted glass on the front door of the second floor entrance.

The building is different and so is the sign, but much like his grandfather, the idea of bringing together those ready to make positive change in the community is very much behind Rasiej's community center. He and Sifry are nothing if not community builders.

"I think that idea of creating a community center for our community, the community we have been building, that is really at the core of what we hope Civic Hall will be," Sifry said. "It is a chance to do something new and challenging that we think can really make a contribution."

[Read: De Blasio Admnistration, City's Tech Community Look Ahead to Big Year Two]

***
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

Note: this article has been updated.

Categories: State/Local
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