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March 2013
Engaging New Yorkers to Reform Government Vol. 7, Issue 6

IN THIS ISSUE

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 www.GothamGazette.com, an award-winning news and policy website, as a significant component of our public education program.

FROM DICK DADEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Can you believe it is already March? It seems like the ball just dropped in Times Square. Though time has gone fast since the popping of champagne corks welcomed in 2013, there is no shortage of reform issues popping up in our State Capitol and City Hall. Already the mayoral candidates are attending many issue forums and candidate debates. Issues like redistricting have been decided, hopes for campaign finance reform continue to rise, and welcomed movement on election related and transparency issues abound.

I hope you have enjoyed seeing the new edition of Gotham Gazette launched last week and the hard hitting explosive investigate report on the use of antipsychotic medications on seniors at nursing homes. It represents a renewed commitment to our heralded publication and an important part of Citizens Union’s government watchdog role.

This delayed edition of the Reformer is chock-full of all kinds of reporting on the many issues that Citizens Union is working to advance in our singular mission of making democracy work for all New Yorkers. But all this work takes time and support, i.e. money. If you haven’t yet renewed your membership, or would like to make a special contribution, please do so.

And also look out for information about our small donor event – Spring for Reform to be held on May 22. Now, let’s hope spring is right around the corner and that reform measures for which we have been pushing in recent months also result in some needed changes in our political system and government.

STATE UPDATES

Independent Redistricting One Step Closer to a Reality  Citizens Union’s campaign to reform the state’s redistricting process achieved another success in January, with the State Legislature passing for the second time a constitutional amendment which would create an independent commission to draw state legislative and congressional district lines.  The legislature first passed the amendment in 2012, and a second vote this year of the state legislature was required, as is the process required to change the state’s constitution.  Now the voters in will have the opportunity to weigh in on this important change when it is on the ballot in November 2014.    Prior to this vote, Citizens Union released a  report  showing how gerrymandering allows the majority party in each house to preserve its power, protecting incumbents and reducing competition in elections.  The report also listed those legislators who in 2012 promised to Citizens Union through their candidate questionnaires to vote in favor of the amendment.  Ultimately, the constitutional amendment garnered the bipartisan support of 133 members of the Assembly and 43 members of the Senate with 14 of 33 Democratic Senators voting for it.

Campaign Finance Reform

Citizens Union continues to coordinate with the Fair Elections campaign spearheaded by the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizen Action New York and the Center for Working Families among other organizations to replicate the city’s public matching program at the state level.  Citizens Union participated in a campaign Lobby Day on February 12th, outlining the importance of campaign finance reform to Assembly lawmakers and discussing the need to address independent expenditures (campaign expenditures made by outside groups uncoordinated with candidates) with the Senate Republican staff.  Stay tuned for the release of CU reports that will show the need for better disclosure and enforcement to complement the campaign’s main focus on the public matching system.  We have also been lending our policy expertise to devise coalition recommendations to address independent expenditures by third-party entities and best practices in enforcement.Independent ExpendituresIn addition to advocating for comprehensive reform of the state’s campaign finance laws, Citizens Union has also sought to achieve disclosure of independent expenditures (campaign expenditures made by outside groups uncoordinated with candidates) by entities outside the legislature.  Following a complaint we filed with the Attorney General Eric Schneiderman regarding independent spender and 501c4 organization Common Sense Principles, the Attorney General’s Office released draft regulations requiring disclosure of campaign spending by entities required to register with the Charities Bureau in the annual reports they submit to the office.  The OAG’s regulations require entities that engage in more than $10,000 electioneering or express advocacy communications targeting candidates six months before an election disclose their spending and contributors donating $100 or more.  Citizens Union   testified in support of these regulation, and recommended linking the disclosure of campaign spending made in annual reports to the Charities Bureau to the OAG’s NYOpenGov’t.com website.

A First Test Case in Ethics Oversight

For the first time ever, an investigation involving a legislator or legislative employee was referred by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).  This is an important “test case,” as the 2011 ethics reforms for the first time created independent oversight of the legislature through JCOPE, as noted in Citizens Union’s statement in response to the referral.  The referral takes place in the form of a “substantial basis” report by JCOPE to the LEC, which is a report that is released after an investigation finds that a substantial basis that an ethical violation occurred by either a legislator or legislative employee.

The LEC has up to 45 days to act on the substantial basis report before it becomes public, though it could act on and release the report’s findings before that point.  It is assumed that the report involves the actions of Assemblymember Vito Lopez, who was censured by the Assembly in 2012 for allegations of sexual harassment of his staff member.  Citizens Union will continue to monitor this issue as it unfolds.

Election Reform Moves Forward The State Assembly Election Law Committee earlier this month voted on two important pieces of election legislation, moving them forward in the legislative process.  The committee voted in favor of legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to institute early voting in New York State, as well as the Voter Friendly Ballot Act which is supported by Citizens Union and would simplify the ballot, making it easier to reach by allowing for larger font size, among other changes.  Citizens Union, along with its good government partners, released a statement commending Speaker Silver for moving his early voting proposal forward, and plan to review best practices in other states and engage with the Speaker, other legislative leaders and the Governor – who also commendably highlighted the need for early voting in his State of the State Address –  on this issue.

 

CITY UPDATES

Districting

The process of redrawing the city’s council district lines is nearing completion, and Citizens Union had an important victory regarding the transparency of the process of drawing lines.  Prior to voting on a revised set of maps, the City Districting Commission  released the set of maps in advance of its vote, along with a staff memorandum that presented detailed information regarding the rationale for the drawing of each district.  Citizens Union first recommended the Commission release such a memo in a letter earlier this year, and praised the City Districting Commission for releasing this memo, which was the first of its kind in New York City, and is a model for other jurisdictions nationally.  The low-point of the redistricting process, however, was that the new maps did not include any additional district that allowed Asian Americans an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, as Citizens Union had recommended in its letter to the Commission, along with many other organizations such as ACCORD and AALDEF.  The Commission ultimately approved its maps with a 14-1 vote in favor, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Commissioner Linda Lin, who voiced concerns that the districts as drawn did not properly reflect the increase in population of the Asian American community, in particular with regards to the neighborhoods of Bayside, Bayside Hills and Oakland Gardens in Queens.

 

Elections

While the city elections are ten months away, the Board of Elections in the City of New York has already sounded the alarm that it will not be able to implement a run-off election with the procedures required for the new voting machines that were put into place in New York in 2010.  State law requires that a run-off election occur between the top two finishers two weeks after the primary for citywide offices (mayor, public advocate and comptroller) if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote.

The new procedures, which were put in place in 2010 following the passage of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, require more time for the printing of paper ballots, the testing of scanners to read the ballots, and transportation of the machines to and from the poll sites.  Even with the old Schoop lever machines, the top two candidates for a run-off were sometimes not known until days before the run-off.  The already tight schedule has been exacerbated by the new machines.  Citizens Union is recommending the state legislature pass Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to replace the separate run-off election.  With IRV, voters rank candidates from first to last based on preference.  If no candidate wins 40 percent of the first-place votes, the top two candidates with the most first-place votes advance to the instant run-off.  Votes are awarded to these top two finishers from those ballots on which they were not ranked first or second according to which candidate voters ranked highest.

Another option besides IRV include extending by a week to three-weeks the timing of the run-off election.  Other less favorable options include using the old lever machines, pre-printing all possible ballots in advance, using ballots with “candidate A” and “candidate B” as placeholders for actual candidates made known through a separate card given to voters, eliminating the run-off altogether, among other options.  Citizens Union opposes any option that does not include the new voting machines.

 


GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS

On February 25, Citizens Union Foundation launched for the first time in fourteen years a reimagined Gotham Gazette publication. Gotham Gazette now has a new editorial focus on investigative public interest journalism, a brand-new and streamlined design, as well as new resources for engaging with the issues that matter most to New Yorkers. A few recent articles:

Investigation: How Nursing Homes Drug Seniors Into Submission
An investigation into the use of antipsychotics at nursing homes in New York City shows the practice is widespread at facilities in the five boroughs — and loosely regulated. By Elbert Chu.

What A Court Ruling Against the Voting Rights Act Could Mean for NYC
A case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by a small Alabama county could reshape future election law in New York City, and strip minority groups of federal protections against voter discrimination. By Chester Soria.

Butt of Jokes G Train Gets Serious Attention
A case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by a small Alabama county could reshape future election law in New York City, and strip minority groups of federal protections against voter discrimination. By Chester Soria.

 

WHO IS CITIZENS UNION?

Curtis Cole

Citizens Union Board member Curtis Cole is an example of the wide diversity of professionals who get involved in the work of Citizens Union. Curt is Chief Information Officer at Weill Cornell Medical College, as well as Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and Public Health there, and an attending physician at New York Presbyterian. As CIO at the Medical College, Curt implemented the electronic medical record system currently in use there and is also responsible for research and educational systems.

As a professional in an industry that is rapidly approaching 20% of the country’s GDP, and observing New York State’s efforts to implement the federal Affordable Care Act without a lot of oversight as he sees it, Curt understand the need for independent citizen organizations to check up on government and make sure decisions are not driven by narrow special interests.

“It’s absolutely critical in a free society to have watchdogs over the government, particularly those who strive for some form of objectivity and fairness,” says Curt. “Citizens Union is not really a special interest group, it’s kind of the opposite, it’s a general interest group.”

Curt has a history of activism, and helped to set up the first gay and lesbian political action committee in Maine, before he came to New York City in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis. He originally intended to do graduate work in clinical psychology, but seeing friends die from AIDS moved him to switch paths into HIV prevention research and eventually into medical school at Weill Cornell. Having grown up with computers—his father was a computer science teacher—he became involved with Cornell’s early efforts to computerize medical data and helped develop ambulatory electronic medical records.

Curt has seen and lived in many parts of the U.S. He was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Philadelphia, lived in Boston and upstate New York, and went to college in Maine. He says New York City is different from anywhere else, especially in terms of diversity. New York also has Citizens Union and Curt wishes there were a “union of Citizens Unions” to take to the rest of our polarized country a nonpartisan approach to addressing serious problems where we all have common ground.

“We don’t have to spend all our time arguing over things we’ll never agree on, there are tons of things we can agree on that will move the country forward,” says Curt. “I wish there were more organizations like Citizens Union throughout the country—a Citizens Union in every state and in every large city.”

 

EVENTS & PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Save the Date – Spring for Reform 2013 – Strenghtening New York: A Chorus of Immigrant Voices

Mark your calendar for Wednesday, May 22nd from 6-8:30pm for Citizens Union’s annual informal spring fundraiser.  This year, New York City’s immigrant communities take the spotlight, joining us at a brand new location overlooking Manhattan’s Hudson Yards at Studio 450 along with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.  Don’t miss it!

Become a CU Member or Renew Your Membership

Why Join Citizens Union as a Member? Here are three reasons to become a member, renew your membership or make an additional gift for CU’s work today, as a new year of reform gets underway:

  • Your membership strengthens our work with elected officials
  • It keeps you in the loop on new policy developments
  • Your membership dollars help us achieve results!

Support Citizens Union today – and recruit one friend to become a brand new member. The more voices, the more dollars, the more we can accomplish together.

Get Involved!

Your membership opens up new opportunities for civic engagement!  Play a hands-on role in making democracy work for all New Yorkers by joining one of Citizens Union’s volunteer committees:  Local Candidates, Program, Spring for Reform, Municipal Affairs, and State Affairs.  Want to learn more?  Contact Membership Associate Elyse Bejasa at 212-227-0342 x29.

 

CITIZENS UNION IN THE NEWSTo read recent coverage of our work visit the In the News section of our website. Recently, Citizens Union’s work was covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily News, NY1, NBC News, and the Times Union, among others.

Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation
299 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10007-1976
Phone 212-227-0342 – [email protected] – www.citizensunion.org
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Peter J.W. Sherwin, Chair – Robert Abrams, President – Dick Dadey, Executive Director

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