|Engaging New Yorkers to Reform Government||Vol. 7, Issue 2|
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.
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Just like the unusual start to spring here in the city, March came in like a lamb for our issues, and ended with a roar as three important reforms that Citizens Union has been working on for years were achieved. Lasting state redistricting reform was advanced with the legislature’s first passage of a constitutional amendment creating an independent commission. The city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board received a broad new power to prosecute cases of police misconduct that it confirms, bringing needed creditability to the process of public oversight over the NYPD’s disciplining of officers. And city government transparency scored a huge victory with the enactment of an open data bill that will require all city agencies to put a slew of information online, making much data easily accessible to the public for the first time. The details for all three are below.
This trifecta of progress shows the constructive force for reform that Citizens Union has become. We identify important issues to be addressed, propose reasonable positions, and work effectively with government to bring about the policy changes we seek. We don’t simply talk about what needs to done or criticize elected officials for not doing so, but rather we engage government to help it make good decisions. So thanks for your continued support and interest. It is your support and involvement that has made these important victories possible.
Citizens Union’s years-long effort on redistricting reform culminated in first passage of a constitutional amendment (which will need to pass again in 2013 in order to be put on the ballot for voters) and an accompanying statute–which mirrors the constitutional amendment and will go into effect if the amendment is not passed–which will create an independent commission beginning in 2022 and take the pen out of the hands of legislators in drawing the initial state legislative and congressional district lines. While the reform package did not achieve everything we sought, namely substantial improvements to the 2012 state legislative lines, it is a significant improvement over the status quo that will for the first time give minority and third party/unaffiliated members a real role in the process while forbidding the drawing of lines to favor or disfavor incumbents, challengers or political parties. The legislature does retain the ultimate authority to approve lines drawn by an independent commission, but can only do so after twice voting down commission-drawn lines, and is restricted from making changes that affect more than two percent of the population of any single district.
Citizens Union has made available a statement explaining our decision to support the reform package as well as a question and answer document which provides details on the provisions of the constitutional amendment and statute, comparing the proposed reform to the status quo.
David King, Gotham Gazette’s state government editor, spent part of his honeymoon and his weekends over the last few months working as the New York State reporter for the Center for Public Integrity’s (CPI) State Integrity Investigation, which looked at each of the states and how them stem corruption in law and in practice. The work paid off earlier this month when CPI released its study and ranked New York 36th in terms of public accountability and possible corruption, giving the state a “D” grade. The study found that while New York has some decent accountability laws on the books, they are routinely ignored — like when legislators pass important legislation in the dark of night only after having read it minutes beforehand, or when public information is not made readily available. The New York Times editorialized on the subject–referencing King’s findings on the state, as did the Albany Times Union. CPI now hopes to work with states to institute reform.
Prior to an agreement being reached on the state budget, Citizens Union announced its opposition to language contained in the Governor’s proposed state budget legislation which would give the governor unilateral authority to transfer funds between agencies or programs without legislative approval. In its position statement , CU provided alternative means of implementing the goals of greater efficiency in state government, looking at models in the New York City budgeting process. Ultimately, the final budget bills contained revised language that limited the transfer of funds for only “back-office operations.”
Citizens Union also called for the budget to be adopted after a three-day aging process, urging the Governor to not use messages of necessity to allow immediate voting on bills. Ultimately, no messages of necessity were used in passing the state’s budget. Legislation is typically voted on by legislators three days after its introduction, allowing members of the public and rank-and-file legislators to have adequate time to review contents of bills. Budget bills can number hundreds of pages, which is why it is particularly important for them to have a full public vetting prior to adoption.
At a press conference in Albany , Citizens Union joined with other leading civic groups — Common Cause, the League of Women Voters NYS, NYPIRG and Reinvent Albany — to call on the Governor, Legislature, Attorney General and Comptroller to use the explosion in affordable information technology to make New York State government more transparent, responsive and accountable. The groups issued a report outlining specific recommendations for each of the various branches of government, such as proactively putting commonly requested data and information online, webcasting Assembly committee meetings, and making the state budget more user friendly in a spreadsheet format.
Citizens Union achieved a major victory in March which will reform the handling of allegations of police misconduct. The City Council, Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would grant the CCRB the authority to prosecute substantiated complaints of police misconduct (allegations vetted through their investigative process) falling under their jurisdiction. Currently the NYPD acts as prosecutor, judge and jury in handling allegations of police misconduct.
The MOU would also increase transparency of disciplinary decisions, requiring that the Police Commissioner explain any difference in penalty that he levies from that recommended by the CCRB or the NYPD trial judge. The Commissioner would retain the authority to make final decisions on punishment for officers found guilty of misconduct. The MOU was the culmination of years of work by Citizens Union on this issue, including making a series of recommendations addressing police misconduct from 2008 and drafting and advocating for legislation on both reforms that were integrated into the MOU. We also released a report in March of this year showing that in 92 percent of cases from 2002 to 2010 where the CCRB recommended the most severe penalty for officers engaging in misconduct, the Police Commissioner gave less severe penalties or no discipline at all.
Citizens Union brought about significant improvement in government transparency by working with the Council, the Mayor’s Office and our good government and civic technology partners to finalize and pass Int. No. 29, the Open Data bill. The bill will require all city agencies and entities to put all their finalized quantitative forms of data in a singular web portal by 2018. Phased in over time, the legislation will make available to the public raw data like lists, graphs, charts, and spreadsheets enabling civic groups to analyze information and produce reports to better hold government accountable. Technology groups will be able to use the information to create software applications to better enhance service delivery and connect people to their government. Citizens Union testified twice since 2009 on the bill, and was involved in negotiations to finalize the language. We were able through our involvement to improve public disclosure of compliance with the bill’s provisions and expand the data made available in the portal. A government Open Data portal was established prior to the bill’s passage that will house the many additional data sets the bill will make accessible. Interested in Civic Technology? Attend this year’s Spring for Reform and learn more!
The Campaign Finance Board (CFB) released their final rules regarding disclosure of independent expenditures, integrating many of Citizens Union’s recommendations. This culminates Citizens Union’s work to ensure regulation of independent spending, which first began with our recommendation to the City Charter Commission in 2010 to require disclosure. These new rules will help to shed light on third-party spending in elections, providing needed disclosure of independent spending. For more information, see the Campaign Finance Board’s guide to the new regulations.
Citizens Union endorsed Lew Fidler in the special election in Senate District 27 in southern Brooklyn. Fidler, the Democratic candidate running against Republican political neophyte David Storobin, was supported by Citizens Union for his steadfast support for campaign finance and redistricting reform, as well as his knowledge and serious approach to all issues as demonstrated by his performance in the Council’s leadership. Storobin did not choose to interview with Citizens Union despite our repeated requests. The race is still being decided, as it was so close that a review is now being done of absentee and affidavit ballots, and court intervention will likely decide which of those ballots count and ultimately, the outcome of the race. The vacancy was created by the resignation of Carl Krueger after he pled guilty to multiple charges stemming from a corruption scandal.
In addition to the primary in Senate District 27, there were four other legislative seats being filled in special elections on March 20th. Noting the five vacancies being filled, Citizens Union released updated research showing that the number of legislators who were first elected in a special election has increased to 30 percent – nearly a third of all state legislative seats. Special elections for the New York State Legislature are filled through low-turnout special elections, at which candidates nominated in closed-door proceedings for the major parties are on the ballot, rather than having been selected through a competitive primary election by the voters. Citizens Union in a press release called upon the State Legislature and Governor to support two reform bills that allow voters greater choice of candidates.
In the past few months the Gotham Gazette has begun to focus more on long-form, in-depth reporting and so far the results have received a storm of attention.
Education reporter Andrea Gabor’s “When Making a Great Teacher is a Team Effort” presented a case study of one teacher’s evaluation. The article demonstrated how the evaluation got data wrong, failed to capture improvements and distorted basic classroom realities. The article focused on how this former low-scoring teacher became a highly rated educator.
Jonathan Camhi’s “Health Problems Plague City Cab Drivers” presented the health problems facing the city’s cabbies and how one group is trying to provide them with convenient health care and health education.
Sarah Crean’s “What do Budget Cuts Mean for the DEC?” took an unprecedented look at concerns that the DEC’s current staffing levels prevent it from carrying out its mission. DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens spoke to the Gazette about criticisms that environmental advocates (himself included) have leveled at the agency and its funding.
Gotham Gazette’s state government editor David King documented heated battles in Albany over redistricting and other issues. King kept The Wonkster up to date as legislators hunkered down to codify last minute deals in the dark of night.
The Gazette also provided reliable coverage of the City Council and analyzed efforts to make city data available to the public.
We are also pleased to announce that David King has been accepted for a fellowship on reporting on juvenile justice issues at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. King has covered the state’s dysfunctional juvenile justice system for years. The fellowship will give King access to seminars with a number of highly placed experts on juvenile justice issues, at which he and other fellows from across the country will pool ideas as they work on pieces about juvenile justice in their home states. King covered juvenile justice issues recently in a piece for Gotham Gazette, “Close to Home.” Look for his continuing coverage in Gotham Gazette in the months ahead.
On Wednesday, May 23rd, fans of good government will gather at Manhattan Penthouse from 6-8:30pm for cocktails and conversation as we honor Dawn Barber, Art Chang, Mark Gorton and Torrance Robinson. Each of these accomplished individuals are using technology to creatively connect New Yorkers to one another and to government. WNYC business reporter Ilya Marritz will host a conversation that explores how technology is strengthening New York, including its government.
Theresa Doherty joined Citizens Union because it was an opportunity to connect knowledge of city and state government policy to her long career in community development work.
“Those who are working on the front lines, they feel disconnected to policy making although the very nature of the services they deliver is affected by city and state policy,” Theresa said.
Theresa is Deputy Director of Programs at El Puente, a community-based organization focused on arts, education, public health, environmental advocacy & social justice in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. (The founder and president of El Puente, Luis Garden Acosta, is a Vice-Chair of Citizens Union’s Board.) At El Puente, Theresa develops programs to engage youth and adult community members in civic affairs and develop their leadership skills in ways that share common ground with Citizens Union.
“We do ‘NYC 101’ for them,” Theresa said, “so they understand what avenues they have to connect with policies and policy makers. It’s not just about a rally to protest budget cuts, but how do we engage with policy makers proactively.”
Similarly, Theresa says her work at El Puente informs her work on Citizens Union’s Municipal Affairs Committee, giving her an on-the-ground perspective of such issues tackled by CU as mayoral control of schools (El Puente partners with schools and runs after-school programs) and City Council discretionary funding (Theresa writes grants to obtain discretionary funding for her programs).
“CU is a way for people to connect with policymaking,” said Theresa. “It makes it real.”
Theresa was born in the Philippines to a Bronx-Irish father and Filipino mother and moved to the United States at the age of 12. She came to the Bronx for college and, except for graduate school, has lived in New York City ever since. She has lived in four of the five boroughs and loves the city for its strong sense of neighborhood community.
“People are looking to make connections with each other here,” she said.
Theresa is also on CU’s Spring for Reform event planning committee. This year’s theme for Spring for Reform (May 23) is technology and civic engagement and Theresa has designed a special blog for the event. Take a look at her handiwork. Thanks, Theresa!
Ethics reform. Extending prosecutorial powers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Redistricting reform. Access to ballot information and the polls at election time. Citizens Union has had victories in each of these areas in the past year. As a member of Citizens Union, you share in that victory. Join or renew today and help us achieve state-level campaign finance reform tomorrow.
To read recent coverage of our work visit the In the News section of our website.