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Feb/March 2010
Engaging New Yorkers to Reform Government Vol. 5, Issue 1

IN THIS ISSUE

About Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation

Citizens Union of the City of New York is an independent, nonpartisan force dedicated to promoting good government and political reform in the city and state of New York. For more than a century, Citizens Union has served as a watchdog for the public interest and an advocate for the common good. We work to ensure fair elections, clean campaigns, and open, effective government that is accountable to the citizens of New York. We do so by informing the policy debate and influencing the policy outcomes that affect the lives of all New Yorkers. Believing that an informed citizenry is the cornerstone of a thriving local democracy, Citizens Union Foundation – the non profit research, education, and advocacy organization affiliated with CU – publishes Gotham Gazette, a front row seat to New York City policies and politics.

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from Dick Dadey, Executive Director

The year is only two months old and a lot has been accomplished. The CCRB is taking on the power to prosecute some of the cases it substantiates – a position CU started advancing in May 2008. After a year of intense work, meaningful state ethics reform almost happened until the Governor vetoed the bill and Republican Senators who voted for it originally changed their minds and inexplicably voted against it on the override. CU launched its Council Lulu watch as part of its on-going effort to bring even greater reform to the operations of the city council. These issues, and more, are shared in greater detail in the newsletter below. Your support – which is critically important – makes our progress and victories possible in making our democratic governments function a bit more effectively and accountably. But no discussion of the first two months of 2010 is complete without mentioning the past few days involving our Governor. The news have been both disturbing to hear and dizzying to follow. CU is evaluating the situation and will have more to say as matters develop, but regardless of our view, this much is certain: our empire state, once known as a model of efficient and effective state government, is now not just dysfunctional, but can’t function at all. These indeed are sad times for New York.

 

Who is New at Citizens Union?

Citizens Union would like to welcome three new individuals to the Citizens Union/Citizens Union Foundation family.

In December 2009, the Boards of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation unanimously accepted the nominations of Nicole Gordon to the CUF Board, and Ken Seplow to the CU Board. Nicole has served New York City in a variety of roles, including Vice President at the JEHT Foundation and Executive Director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, among others. Ken is a long-time member of Citizens Union, having served on the Municipal Affairs Committee and co-chairing its subcommittee on infrastructure and development. Ken’s leadership with the subcommittee led to the development of several CU positions on transportation funding, among other items.

Citizens Union is also pleased to announce the hire of Alex Camarda as Citizens Union’s Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, succeeding DeNora Getachew who is now serving as the Policy Director of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. Alex brings a strong blend of skills and experience, having served as Policy Director and Press Secretary for State Senator Jeff Klein and, before that, as Associate Director of New School Development at the New York City Department of Education. Alex began his career as a social studies teacher in the Bronx.

State Updates

State Policy Agenda Outlines Citizens Union’s State Reform Goals

Citizens Union’s 2010 State Policy Agenda is now posted on the CU website, www.citizensunion.org, and contains our recommendations in the areas of redistricting reform, election reform, campaign finance reform, government reform, judicial reform, budget reform, and legislative rules reform.

 

Ethics Update

In one of the more bizarre moments in recent state legislative history, the Senate failed to override the Governor’s veto of the state ethics reform bill in spite of having overwhelmingly passed it two weeks earlier with only one vote in opposition. Many Republicans switched their vote once Governor Paterson provided the cover to oppose the bill with his misguided veto. The fact that the Governor stood in the way of enacting a meaningful piece of legislation that would have significantly cleaned up the ethics swamp in Albany defies explanation, other than to see it as a crass political move at the expense of achieving an important public policy reform. The unfortunate circumstance of this maneuver is that the Governor did not come to the effort with a bill to negotiate until it was too late and he did not have the political power to change the dynamics on the issue. If he had, we would have been negotiating a stronger bill.

The failure of the ethics bill to become law is a disappointment to Citizens Union, which has worked on this issue intensely since January 2009. We believe that the bill, while not perfect, represented the first meaningful step toward improving ethics oversight and enforcement. Though many can disagree over the bill not achieving enough, it was a vast improvement on the currently weak system we presently have. Citizens Union along with some of its good government colleagues  supported  the ethics bill, which was negotiated and drafted over many months by the State Assembly and Senate and would have tackled many of the issues that currently plague the state’s oversight and enforcement of its ethic laws, with a final negotiating session held with CU, its good government colleagues and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson. While the bill ultimately failed to be passed, without the work of Citizens Union and its colleagues, the issue of ethics might not have even been on the table.

The final push for ethics reform, largely catapulted by the convictions of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and others, was also aided by Citizens Union’s report ”  Examining Turnover in the New York State Legislature: Ethical Misconduct Increasingly the Cause for Legislators Leaving ,” which was released last fall and found that legislator indiscretions were on the rise, and turnover due to ethical lapses has made up 10 percent of all departures since 1999.

Citizens Union will continue to push for ethics reform in spite of this failure during the next year following up to the state elections this fall. The need is greater than ever with the recent expulsion of Senator Monserrate. Additionally, the City Bar has issued a report which finds that legislators who are attorneys should be required to disclose their clients, but the report recommends that any changes to the law be made to apply prospectively for only new clients of legislators. The issue of client disclosure was a source of tension in Albany, and this report should bolster CU’s efforts to enact this change to the law.

 

CU Recommends State Budget Process Reform

Prior to the release of the Executive Budget in January, Citizens Union again pressed its case to make New York State’s opaque budget process more transparent, user-friendly and efficient. It did so in two separate actions, first in releasing a “report card” on the state’s progress in implementing its 2007 budget reforms, and then in  testimony it delivered before the State Senate’s Select Committee on Budget and Tax Reform. CU’s  budget reform report card  analyzed the state’s compliance with the 2007 budget reforms, and its progress implementing additional reforms presented in our  2008 issue brief and position statement on budget reform . CU will continue to monitor the state budget process as it unfolds in 2010, as well as push for reforms to improve transparency, efficiency, and accountability of the process.

 

CU Pushes for “NY-SPAN” Implementation Using National Best Practices

Citizens Union called for the state to implement a state government public affairs channel similar to C-SPAN in  testimony  it delivered to the State Legislature’s Joint Advisory Board on the Broadcast of State Government Proceedings. CU recommended that the Advisory Board develop concrete and measurable goals for adding new content to the channel, and provided a series of best practices for the use of the channel’s corresponding website with regard to archival footage and ease of public use. CU plans to monitor the implementation of the new channel in 2010.

 

City Updates

City Policy Agenda Outlines Citizens Union’s City Reform Goals

Citizens Union’s 2010 City Policy Agenda is now posted on the CU website, www.citizensunion.org, and contains our recommendations in the areas of election reform, campaign finance reform, city council reform, government performance and functioning, and government accountability and oversight.

 

CU Commends CCRB and NYPD Agreement on Pilot Prosecution of Some Cases by CCRB Attorneys

Citizens Union scored a major victory last Friday when it was announced that the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) reached an agreement in principle to begin a process of allowing the CCRB to prosecute some cases of police misconduct before the Police Department’s own Administrative Law Judges. CU had called for major reforms in how the city handles public oversight of police misconduct in May 2008, with granting prosecutorial power to the CCRB a major element of its recommendations. Though the details of the agreement have not yet been developed, CU commended both the NYPD and CCRB for their commitment to develop the pilot project in coming months. Citizens Union will monitor the progress of this program, and believes that this action is a laudable but only partial reform. The organization supports creating a more independent and empowered CCRB that is able to prosecute all cases of misconduct which they substantiate, as was recommended in CU’s  Issue Brief and Position Statement on Public Oversight of Police Misconduct .

 

CU Unveils Council Lulu Watch and Calls for their Elimination to Save Taxpayers $500,000

Citizens Union  released  a report card, ”  Grading the New York City Council’s Rules and Budget Reforms ,” on how well the City Council has performed since Citizens Union’s 2006 report: ”  Principles of Council Reform: Ideas for a More Democratic and Effective Council .” The report notes areas of progress in making the Council’s operations more transparent, but also called upon the Council to enact further reform by cutting the number of Council committees in half and ending the practice of awarding stipends to committee chairs, which are a symptom of other structural problems in the system of awarding compensation.

In following up on its report card, Citizens Union last week unveiled Council Lulu Watch, an online tracking tool reporting on what each of the 51 members of the City Council is doing with his or her council stipend, or “lulu.” Since the release of Citizens Union’s report card on January 17th, and CU’s emphasis on elimination of stipends as a key issue in its effort to further reform the operations of the City Council, a total of eleven councilmembers have either refused or donated their stipend to charity. The New York Daily News and several other news outlets have been covering the Council’s actions on stipends, as seen in the articles listed on Council Lulu Watch.

 

The Impending City Charter Revision Commission

With the formation of a city charter revision commission appointed by Mayor Bloomberg expected in the next few weeks, Citizens Union will be forming its own internal task force to examine the city charter and provide guidance to the commission regarding the important issues that it should examine, as well as recommendations for reform. CU plans to work closely with the Charter Revision Commission in this important task of conducting a twenty-year review of city government, as well as ensuring a process that provides the public an opportunity to participate.

 

CU Recommends Reform Agenda for City Council Governmental Operations Committee

Citizens Union laid out its top government reform priorities before the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee under its new chair, Gale Brewer, when it  testified before the committee on February 9th . These priorities include holding hearings on the issues likely to be addressed in the widely anticipated mayoral charter commission, evaluating the city’s campaign finance program, continuing to monitor the implementation of new voting systems, evaluating council reform, and addressing the issue of councilmember compensation.

Elections Update

After years of delays to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), New York City will finally say goodbye to its old lever voting machines. The new voting system was selected in the beginning of the year and will require voters to make their selections on paper ballots, which will be collected and tabulated by an optical scan machine. The ES&S DS200 scanners selected by the Board of Elections in the City of New York (Board) will be placed in every poll site this fall in time for the primary election. In addition, poll sites will continue to use the AutoMARK machines that were first implemented last year, to allow all voters, including those with disabilities and those not proficient in English, to mark their ballots with an automated computer instead of a pen.

The Board is planning to embark on an expansive public education campaign to familiarize New York voters about the switch. For more information about them you can visit the Board of Elections website where they will be adding new information about the machines.

 

Gotham Gazette Highlights

Gotham Gazette kicked off the new year — and its second decade — with a redesign that makes the site more attractive, easier to use and more timely. New content now appears on the site every workday — so visit often! Be sure to subscribe to Gotham Gazette’s email newsletters, including the daily Eye Opener, and enjoy the improved design along with the incisive coverage of policy, issues and politics our readers have come to expect.

 

Other recent highlights are below.

Contested ‘Domain’

Several politicians want to rein in New York’s authority to seize a person’s property to make way for private development. Can they succeed in a state where real estate rules?

Who Writes the Bills?

Which City Council member sponsored the most legislation — and who offered the fewest bills? Find out how your member fared in writing — and passing — laws.

Bloomberg’s Bluff

The mayor warns that Gov. Paterson’s budget would force the city to cut 8,500 teachers, reduce police to 1985 levels, and end street cleaning. Scary stuff, but maybe that’s just the point.

A Violent, Dysfunctional System

Forcible restraint remains too common and therapy too rare in homes for juvenile offenders, according to several recent investigations. Is change finally on the way?

An Honest Day’s Pay?

In the aftermath of the Kingsbridge Armory debate, a more widespread bill on living wages may not come as easily as some expect. Find out where your councilmember stands on this issue. And Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development discusses how community activists defeated the large mall project.

Events

Civic Conversation on Charter Revision

Citizens Union co-hosted with Baruch College a Civic Conversation focused on the much anticipated New York City charter revision commission expected to be called by Mayor Bloomberg in the coming weeks. The public forum, “Charting NYC’s Future: Charter Revision 2010,” featured panelists Ester Fuchs, Chair of the 2005 Charter Commission; Stephen Fiala, Member of the 2005 Charter Commission; Eric Lane, Executive Director of the 1989 Charter Commission; and Bill Thompson, former NYC Comptroller. The panelists discussed the importance of having a top to bottom review of the charter and ensuring that its formation reinforces independence. “You have to have a legitimate commission, and it’s up to the Mayor,” said Lane.

The panelists discussed lessons to be learned from the 1989 commission, and some of the issues they would like to see highlighted in a 2010 commission. Many agreed that the office of borough president and the public advocate should be reviewed but cautioned against letting it dominate over other more pressing issues about city government. On the pubic advocate, Fiala held the perspective that the city should, “just fund the damn thing, and see what it can do.” In the end, all the panelists emphasized the importance of public participation. Fuchs, offering advice to any future commission chair, said it was important to reach out to the community, not be afraid to take risks in prosing new ideas and “just listen.”

Who is Citizens Union?

Lillian Rodr&#237guez L&#243pez

Born and bred in New York City, Lillian Rodr&#237guez L&#243pez joined the Board of Citizens Union in 2006 because she wanted to be part of an organization focused on good governance in her hometown. As President of the Hispanic Federation, a non-profit membership organization serving close to 100 Latino health and human service agencies in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Rodr&#237guez L&#243pez is one of several Latino community leaders on the CU Board. She says her work with each organization informs and enriches the other.

“There is very good synergy between the Federation and CU about issues that affect the Latino community,” said Rodr&#237guez L&#243pez. “We serve to educate each other.”

The other hats she wears include Chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, member of the Manhattan Borough President Community Board Reform Committee, the Wells-Fargo-Wachovia Bank Community Board, the News Corporation Diversity Council, and the Nielsen Company Latino Advisory Board. In 2008, she was selected as one of the 15 Most Influential Latinos in the country by People En Espa&#241ol.

Rodr&#237guez L&#243pez says that CU’s work is important because it takes a close analytical look at the critical issues facing New York and opens up debate among a wide-ranging group of constituents.

“CU allows you to not just stay in your own playground,” she said. “That’s what drew me. To try to engage and show a diversity of opinions and backgrounds is really important to build the best New York City that you can. We don’t always agree but we do try to respect each other’s opinions and understand each other’s views.”

 

Join Citizens Union as a Member

Don’t delay – become a member of Citizens Union now. Your voice and support today builds momentum for our 2010 Campaign to Change Albany. Help CU take on “government as usual” by making a membership contribution of $30 or more. Your dollars make our work possible.

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