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Reformer: April 2014


In This Issue

April 2014



The cause of political reform can often bring both satisfaction and disappointment all in the same action.  To see such emotional conflict, look no further than Albany’s recent actions.  With the adoption of the state budget earlier this month, modest public integrity improvements were made in ethics and elections while comprehensive campaign finance reform was left out of the package as the Moreland Commission was shut down.  Thankfully good progress is being made at the city council to democratize and improve the legislative body and possibly eliminate unnecessary run-off elections.  And helping us to keep government accountable and elected officials on their toes, Gotham Gazette is putting out much more story content with great new staff under the leadership of new executive editor Ben Max.


For a quick snapshot of what Citizens Union has been doing with the support of many of you, read on…

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The City Council announced yesterday a proposal to notably reform its rules of operations by distributing council discretionary funding more equitably and empowering the members more in the drafting and consideration of legislation and the running of committees. Though rules changes have been made in 2002, 2004, 2006, and again in 2010, those proposed today go further than any earlier set of rules changes and earned kudos from Citizens Union.

It is a rare event when a legislative leader voluntarily shares power and gives up a portion of her authority.  In so doing, Speaker Mark-Viverito is making the Council a more effective branch of government that will enable members to better represent the districts they serve.

The reforms key points are:

  • Distributing discretionary funding more equitably by dividing it equally among members or according to a needs-based formula.  Based on previous funding discretionary funding levels, the speaker is giving up her authority over about 38 percent of discretionary funds, up from 2 percent for previous speakers;
  • Requiring organizations receiving discretionary funding to explain how they use the funds;
  • Making discretionary funding and legislative information more transparent by releasing information to the Open Data portal and on the Council’s website in an accessible format, and providing more detailed information about the Council’s own budget;
  • Creating a more autonomous and transparent bill drafting process with dedicated drafters and a database accessible to members enabling members to check the status of the bills they requested be written;
  • Enabling committee chairs to be more clearly involved in the selection of their staff; and
  • Supporting the needed formation of a Quadrennial Commission to address Council compensation including stipends (lulus).


Citizens Union testified last month before the City Council on Rules Reform and urged then for the council to adopt many of the reforms it proposed today.  The Council will hold a second hearing on draft rules in the very near future, part of an unprecedented process in making the Council’s rules a deliberative process in which the public has input.


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The Moreland Commission began with so much promise and hope as the governor formed it to aggressively pursue political corruption and bring about a lasting change in Albany’s laws and culture that give rise to it.  That after a meager 9-months in existence, it only resulted in the legislature adopting worthwhile but limited public integrity legislation affecting election enforcement and anti-corruption tools and penalties is a bit of a head scratcher and a disappointment.  As Citizens Union reported earlier this month, left behind unresolved was needed comprehensive campaign finance reform that would do more than anything else to clean up Albany.

The Commission was also actively pursuing investigations concerning legislators’ personal use of campaign funds and outside income, the contents of which have now been turned over to other law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney Preet Bahara.

Disappointing among the enacted “reforms” was the creation of a public campaign financing system only for the Office of Comptroller and only for this year, which Citizens Union does not support given its narrow scope.  The current incumbent, Tom DiNapoli, has already declined to participate in the system.  Citizens Union joined with our good government colleagues in opposing the budget bill with the insufficient campaign finance reforms.

More significant but still inadequate improvements came in the areas of campaign finance enforcement and ethics.  The much maligned State Board of Elections will be reformed with a new chief enforcement counsel nominated by the governor and approved by both the legislature to conduct investigations.  However, its ability to investigate remains checked by the board itself.

Though appealing, it remains to be seen how effective this new structure will be.   The need for board of elections reform was again made when the State Board of Elections recently notified Citizens Union that it had ended an investigation it never started into the electioneering of a incumbent at a poll site in the Bronx.  This prompted CU to renew our call for better enforcement at the state level for campaign finance violations. This follows inaction by the State Board of Elections in addressing the 224 political clubs who were identified by CU as failing to register.

Anti-corruption laws were significantly revamped making it simpler to prove bribery, increasing the penalties for bribery, and making it easier for district attorneys to bring public corruption cases.


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Campaign finance reform remains on the active list of items to be addressed before the state legislature adjourns in June.  That the issue was fumbled during the state’s budget may improve its chances that something meaningful may get done.  Bolstering the need for such reform on the state level was a Citizens Union report authored by Policy and Research Manager Rachael Fauss that showed less voter choice and candidate competition in NYS legislative contests than NYC council.

The report’s findings show that state legislative elections occurring within New York City feature a greater number of uncontested races, fewer candidates for voters to choose from, and incumbents who face less competition while the City council races feature greater choice and candidate competition due to the strength of the city’s public matching system. Read the full press release here.

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To better inform the voters about who is behind the millions of dollars spent on independent expenditure campaign ads, Citizens Union is calling for greater effective disclosure of political spending in the city’s elections.

In response to the over $15 million that was spent by independent spenders in the city’s 2013 elections, the City Council is considering legislation on what disclaimer measures are appropriate in providing greater information to the voting public on who funds these ads. CU lent its expertise in helping to develop a solution to a piece of legislation introduced by Councilmember Brad Lander in testimony delivered before the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee that provides meaningful disclosure and respects freedom of speech and constitutionally-protected participation in campaigns. The technique of disclosure is important to ensure that the information disclosed doesn’t hamper the content of the political message, no matter how off-putting its content may be.

CU also is supporting legislation sponsored by Councilmember Dan Garodnick ending the practice of candidates for city office being able to send anonymous mailers as some of them did this year in viciously attacking their opponents without identifying from which candidate the piece of mail came.


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Drawing attention to the need for greater transparency in our state capitol, Citizens Union challenged the Assembly to let some sunshine in by webcasting its committee hearings.  As part of Sunshine Week  – a national week of action dedicated to transparency – CU worked with Gotham Gazette and good government partners to webcast the meetings of the State Assembly and participated in a workshop on Open NY, the Governor’s open data initiative, and saw the important release of new data on public authorities by the State Comptroller.


Working with our good government colleagues Reinvent Albany and NYPIRG, Citizens Union webcasted on Gotham Gazette with smartphones the meetings of four Assembly Committees to demonstrate how easy it is to webcast meetings.  The State Assembly currently only webcasts its full session meetings and some hearings, but not committee meetings.  This is in contrast to the State Senate and New York City Council, which webcast all legislative meetings and hearings.  The action was covered widely by the press: see coverage from the Times Union, Politics on the Hudson and New York NOW.



On the one-year anniversary of the creation of the state’s open data portal, Citizens Union offered its expertise at a workshop at the Center for Technology in Government held by the Governor’s Office that explored ways to improve the portal and the future of open data in New York State.  Also released was a one-year progress report on the initiative.



The State Comptroller during Sunshine Week also unveiled a new major transparency effort that puts public authorities’ financial information online through their Open Book NY transparency website.  This follows regular meetings that Citizens Union and our good government partners hold with the State Comptroller’s Office, at which we have provided feedback and brainstormed ways to release more data to the public.

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Legislation has been reintroduced into the New York City Council sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Brad Lander that would put in place instant runoff voting (“IRV”), eliminating the need for a $13 million runoff election that in 2013 drew only 6% of registered Democrats.

Working with national partner FairVote, Citizens Union is working to gain support for the legislation in the City Council, as well as legislation in Albany sponsored by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh that would also establish instant runoff voting in New York City.  City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has indicated that passage of IRV legislation was a top legislative priority of hers in Albany.

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Ben Max, Founder of is the new executive editor of, a publication of Citizens Union Foundation devoted to public interest journalism. Max will focus on strengthening Gotham Gazette’s heralded investigative and explanatory journalism and expand its admired election coverage and political data aggregation. Read the full press release here.

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Gotham Gazette continues to be a reliable source for news about New York City and State politics and policy.  Here is a highlight of recent articles.

Cornegy: My Bill Will Save Lives – part 1 of a video interview with Gotham Gazette. Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. talks with Gotham Gazette (part 1)

De Blasio 100: What the Mayor Said, and Didn’t. Analysis of Mayor de Blasio’s hundredth day speech, which was titled “On the Future of New York City,” by Ben Max

Kill Fee: The Price of Silencing Moreland. David King reports on the money spent by the corruption commission convened and disbanded by Governor Cuomo with minimal results.

De Blasio’s Hundred Days, Then and Now. Ben Max examines Bill de Blasio’s first hundred days as mayor, as public advocate, and as a city council member, finding some common threads.

Push to Reform NYPD Crisis Response May Lead to State-Wide Program. David King reports on the NYPD’s lagging behind other cities in preparing officers to respond to calls involving the mentally ill and reforms on the horizon.

De Blasio’s Homelessness Reset: Advantage Lessons Learned. John Surico takes a detailed look at past homelessness policy and how Mayor de Blasio will be looking to address the problem of New York City’s 53,000-plus homeless.

Creating the Workforce The City’s Tech Economy Needs. Kristen Meriwether examines Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen’s outline for workforce and economic development in the new tech economy.


What Will The New NYPD IG Inspect? Kristen Meriwether reports on the newly appointed, first-ever inspector general of the NYPD, including two key areas he may investigate.

What’s Next for East Midtown? An op-ed by Council Member Dan Garodnick

Beyond Pre-K: What Else is at Stake for NYC in the State Budget. A look at key elements in budget negotiations, by David King

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Some recent highlights from our work as reported by the press about the people and policies in New York.

CBS New York – New York City Council Reforms Rules For Discretionary Spending


Newsday – Moreland Commission adviser criticizes Cuomo


TimesLedger – BOE commissioners hire close to home


NY1 – Watchdogs Cry Foul Over Ad Produced by Nonprofit Staffed With de Blasio Loyalist


The Forum Newsgroup – Queens Leaders: State Budget Will Boost Storm Planning, Boro Economy – But Criticism Issued Over Lack of Campaign Finance Reform


NY1 – Push to Enact Campaign Finance Reform Falls Short in Budget Cycle


NY Daily News – Coney Island toilet tussle leads to $3,700 in political donations to state Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz


WAMC – NYS Public Campaign Financing Effort Limited To Comptroller


Utica OD – US House seats made more competitive in New York


NY1 – Push to Enact Campaign Finance Reform Falls Short in Budget Cycle

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We’re already four months into the year and we’ve already hit the ground running! Campaign finance reform, transparency, council rules reform, these are just a few of the issues we’ve been busy with. But the rest of the year is ahead of us and in order to be an effective force for change and a watchdog on city and state government, we need your support. Help us ensure that state and local governments function effectively and deliver services efficiently to their citizens and make a donation today!

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About Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation

Citizens Union is a nonpartisan good government group dedicated to making democracy work for all New Yorkers. Citizens Union serves as a civic watchdog, combating corruption and fighting for political reform. We work to ensure fair and open elections, honest and efficient government, and a civically-engaged public. Principled and pragmatic, Citizens Union is an independent force for constructive reform, driving policy and educating the public to achieve accountable government in the City and State of New York.

Believing an informed citizenry is the cornerstone of good government, Citizens Union Foundation publishes, an award-winning news and policy website, as a significant component of our public education program.

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