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About Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation

Citizens Union of the City of New York is an independent, non-partisan 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

Though we took a hiatus in sending you our periodic newsletter, the need for reform and seizing the opportunities for it have occupied much of our time. I hope you have kept abreast of our work by receiving and reading our updates and reports. This newsletter is our most full one ever, so I will not take your time and let you read away.


City Updates

Budget Reforms

In response to the initial reports on the investigation of the City Council’s practice of appropriating funds to phantom non-profits, Citizens Union issued a statement in April calling for greater transparency of the practice and offering suggestions as to how to improve review and scrutiny of member items. Following this statement, Citizens Union was actively engaged in discussions with the Speaker Quinn and members of her staff, urging the Council to tighten the review and decision making process involving member items, and ultimately supported the reform proposals that were put forth.

After a necessary second round of internal discussions within the Council, the revised reforms that were enacted created a necessary and uniform pre-qualification process for all entities seeking discretionary City Council funds, intended to weed out illegitimate organizations and strengthen public support for funding legitimate non-profits. Another important element is requiring advanced and greater public disclosure of real and potential conflicts between groups applying for funds and councilmembers. Citizens Union supported this change as one step on the path to reform, issuing a statement in support.

Citizens Union supports the value of member items to communities and neighborhoods that make up the civic fabric of New York, but believes additional future reforms may be needed and will wait to see how this new process works out.

Please see “Citizens Union in the News” for news links on this topic.


Public Oversight of Police Misconduct

Citizens Union in April issued a report reviewing New York City’s policies and procedures governing the handling of alleged police misconduct and the subsequent internal disciplinary action. The report contained a series of policy recommendations designed to improve public confidence and support for the New York Police Department by strengthening public oversight of police misconduct and ensuring a fairer and more independent procedure for handling complaints of misconduct. Chief among the reforms is creating a stronger and more independent Civilian Complaint Review Board that is empowered to try the cases it substantiates.

The recommendations drew upon previous reform proposals from several commissions, including the Knapp and Mollen Commissions, going back over thirty years. Citizens Union issued its report to lend a new voice to the calls for reform that is both non-partisan and offers insight into the need for greater transparency, accountability, and public confidence in the civilian oversight system for police misconduct.

Click here to read the full report and here for the press release.


Congestion Pricing

After careful analysis of the congestion pricing bill put forward by the Governor that embodied the plan submitted by the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, Citizens Union issued a statement in support of congestion pricing, urging the NYS Legislature to make additional changes to the bill to strengthen it. Citizens Union supported the bill’s efforts to mitigate traffic congestion and curtail pollution, and also fund needed improvements to the city’s public transportation system.

Citizens Union made several recommendations to improve the bill, including creation of an independent and expert panel to conduct ongoing review of the program, further expansion of bus rapid transit, an exemption for certain charities, and reduction or elimination of the toll offset for certain drivers.

The proposal unfortunately never received the public debate and vote it deserved in Albany. Not only was it a loss in terms of important policy, but also a loss for democratic process since all the legislative discussions took place behind closed doors not open to public scrutiny.

Click here to read the position statement and here for the press release.


State Updates

Campaign Finance Reforms

Citizens Union has long supported reforms to our state’s abysmal campaign finance law. It supports drastically lower contribution limits, stronger enforcement and oversight, the restrict of certain contributions, increased disclosure, and some form of public financing. In recently releasing an updated position statement on campaign finance reform, Citizens Union reaffirmed its strong support and preference for a state campaign finance program that provides for public matching funds as opposed to full public financing known as “Clean Money, Clean Elections.”

The issue brief and position statement includes analysis of the two systems, which concluded that a public matching system is preferable to a full financing system. Citizens Union is concerned that full public financing limits citizens to contributing only during an early qualifying period that is long before campaigns peak and will have the unintended consequence of decreasing citizen participation. A public matching system will reduce the influence of special interests, increase the value of smaller gifts and empower contributors to make small gifts because of the added value of a public match, and allow contributors to give throughout the course of the campaign and contribute positively to the progressive building of support for the candidate.

Citizens Union urges the State Legislature to pass a public matching bill and to hold hearings on the issue of “full versus public matching” so that the citizens of New York can participate in a discussion with legislators on this important element of campaign finance reform. Click here to read the position statement and here for the press release.


Reform Day

Citizens Union, along with good government groups from across the state, traveled to Albany on April 29, for Reform Day. Reform Day is an annual lobby day that focuses on government reform and increasing transparency and accountability in state government. The reform coalition agenda pushed for an end to partisan gerrymandering and the creation of an independent redistricting commission, closing campaign finance loopholes and establishing public funding for campaigns, and passing meaningful ethics and rules reform.

The day included speeches by Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Attorney General Cuomo discussed the implementation of a new policy by his office that would require groups receiving discretionary funds from a state legislator to sign an affidavit swearing that they do not have a conflict of interest with that legislator. Comptroller DiNapoli also volunteered himself to demonstrate public financing, by calling for the 2010 Comptroller race to allow public funds into the campaign.

Attendees lobbied their legislators to commit to the four reform areas of the day, and sought support for the growing movement for accountability and change in Albany. Events ended with a rally on the steps of the legislature, calling on elected officials to deliver reform now.

To see Dick Dadey probe Minority Leader Smith on his commitment to redistricting reform you can go to: the Daily Politics blog.


Elections Update

New York City Transitioning to Voting Machines

New York City is moving ahead with the purchase of new ballot marking devices that will be used in this fall. The machines will be placed at each poll site as part of a plan by the State Board of Elections to make progress towards full implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) by the 2009 elections.

The new ballot marking devices will arrive sometime in the summer, and after quality testing by both the State and City Boards of Elections, will make their way into poll sites across the city. The machines allow disabled voters to mark paper ballots secretly and independently by hosting a number of different functions that can be used by voters with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments. They are the first step in what will be a wholesale and long overdue replacement of the city’s antiquated Shoup lever voting machines.

The City Board of Elections recently testified at a City Council hearing regarding the preliminary budget. In addition to ensuring that all poll sites will be able to accommodate the new machines, the city BOE estimates that it will need an additional 8,600 poll workers to work the new machines. This fleet of poll workers will be trained intensively on the ballot marking devices to assist voters who wish to use them this fall.

Citizens Union Foundation will again recruit poll workers by offering the only online application for residents of New York City who wish to serve on election day. Click here to apply to be a poll worker.


Civics Education Initiative

Continuing its partnership with the Academy for Civics Education, an Urban Assembly School in the Bronx, Citizens Union hosted a roundtable on mayoral control of schools for a group of sixth graders last month. Dick Dadey led the students through the processes of how decisions are made in the City and State about their schools.

After lunch, board member Amabel James took the students on a tour of City Hall Park and the Woolworth building after learning that the students had an interest in art.

Their program coordinator, Angela Jack wrote, “The excitement about New York City government that you are able to inspire never fails to amaze me. The scholars sometimes groan when I share the topic of a roundtable (after all they are 6th grader and are known to groan at just about anything). After a visit to CU, they always tell me what a great time they had.”


Gotham Gazette Highlights

Gotham Gazette Budget Maze, our latest online policy game, lets players learn about the ins and outs of the city’s budget process — while they navigate a maze and find their way out of chambers with zombies, secret passageways and mysterious cauldrons. Players assume the role of a knight, setting out to rescue funding cuts from the budget dungeon. They have 180 days to find their way through the maze and emerge with funding. How are these decisions made? How can citizens save important programs and shape the city budget? Our game tests participants’ knowledge and (we hope) teaches them a bit about how the city budget works.

We believe that this game is a great tool for grassroots activists, board members, students and other curious New Yorkers. We hope you’ll agree. So, grab your torch and step into our Budget Maze.


Wondering who your next City Council person might be? With hundreds of local candidates gearing up for elections in 2008 and 2009 Gotham Gazette offers “Who’s Running for What,”a searchable tool listing incumbents and candidates for every City Council race, city and borough wide office and state legislative district in the city.


To mark the first anniversary of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC for a more environmentally friendly city, Gotham Gazette, in conjunction with the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development, launched Sustainability Watch, a section of our site that will monitor the New York’s progress toward becoming cleaner and more livable.



Project Sunlight Briefing

Citizens Union Gotham Reformers gathered in March to learn about a new online tool that can be used to find campaign finance information with the click of a mouse. The website, called Project Sunlight, was launched by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office, to make searching for information on campaign contributions, lobbyists, and elected officials’ legislative histories, easy and accessible for New Yorkers.

Blair Horner, the then Special Advisor on Policy and Integrity to Attorney General Cuomo, demonstrated the sites capabilities to the group. While the information found on the website is comprised of public records that can also be found in different agencies, like the New York State Board of Elections, Horner believed that Project Sunlight “makes it easier to see the connections” between elected officials, lobbyists, campaign contributors and the legislation that they support.

You can try your own search by going to:


Grading NYC Schools: Do new accountability measures help our kids?

Citizens Union Foundation hosted a Civic Conversation on April 23, 2008. A distinguished panel moderated by Jennifer Medina, Education Reporter at The New York Times discussed education reform and what test results and other performance measures reveal about New York City’s public schools.

“This accountability requires making use of objective measures of how much children are learning. Those are called standardized tests. There is no question that a system built on training kids to take tests is counter-productive. There is no question that there are abuses associated with this focus, and I have no doubt that some of them are present in our system. But in a bygone era without tests, it was impossible to gauge the effectiveness of a school or a school system. The lack of any common standard led to gross educational inequities and low expectations. Teaching what children should know and then assessing what children have learned, is educationally sound. That’s what we do.” — Chris Cerf, Deputy Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education

“We can keep on doing what has gotten done in the last seven years, both in terms of what has been done here and No Child Left Behind across the country, which is everybody back just fighting with each other. Has it really helped our kids learn? There’s no question that we in the United States of America want universal achievement and universal attainment and universal access. There’s no question that everybody in this field wants to help our kids succeed. All this relentless focus on testing hasn’t worked in the last seven years. If it did, scores would be much higher now. We have to come up with a different approach, to keep everyone’s feet to the fire and build the capacity instead of fear.” — Randi Weingarten, President, United Federation of Teachers

“Probably the biggest problem is the concentration of inexperienced teachers, inexperienced principals with high-needs kids. New York calls that the “Teaching Fellows Program.” There is no evidence anywhere that that will ever work. The kids with high needs need more experienced teachers, who are better trained. And the Department of Education has not come up with a strategy to address that… I support mayoral control because I know that school boards are often very narrow and contribute to some of the chaos in school systems. But mayoral control should not mean that the mayor does whatever he wants, with no accountability to the public. Whether it be cell phones or the budget, the mayor should have to be accountable to the public for the decisions being made. They want to make principals accountable, teachers accountable, kids accountable. My question back to them is, “What are you accountable for?” We need a better system — one that is more transparent, that has independent research to monitor what’s going on in schools, and we need the strategy to address chronically under-performing schools in the city.” — Pedro Noguera, Professor, NYU School of Education and a former co-chair of the City Council’s Task Force on Middle Schools

“We are in crisis in this city, a major crisis. The majority of the students, as you all know, are black and Latino. If the black and Latino students aren’t learning, the system isn’t working, we cannot blame poverty. We need a new system that is not just accountable in terms of punishment; it needs to be accountable in terms of the principles that guide the country. Let’s get back to what I consider to be community in the schools, and schools within the community.” — Esmeralda Simmons, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and a former member of the New York City Board of Education

“Mayoral control is not new; the only thing that’s different is that then we also had the Board of Education, which appointed the superintendent or the chancellor, so there were checks and balances. Today we have no checks and balances.” — Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at NYU and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education


Breakfast Briefs

Citizens Union launched a series of Breakfast Briefs on May 7th in partnership with NYU’s Wagner School. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn kicked off this series by speaking to roughly one hundred Citizens Union members and Citizens Union Foundation supporters about budget reforms and local politics.

Our second Breakfast Brief with City Council Member John Liu on Wednesday, June 4th at 8:00 a.m. at the NYU Wagner School, 295 Lafayette Street, second floor, corner of Houston Street. To rsvp, click here or call 212-227-0342 ext. 47.


Citizens Union Annual Members Meeting

The Citizens Union Annual Members Meeting will be held on Wednesday, June 25th, 5:30 – 7:30 at the office of Proskauer Rose LLP, 1585 Broadway. Current members and supporters will receive their invitations by email and mail in the coming weeks. Please save the date.


Gotham Reformers Reception

Please save the date for this year’s Gotham Reformers Summer Sunset on July 23rd, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the NYU Kimmell Center in Washington Square. To purchase tickets, click here or here for more information. Email invitations and details on speakers will be available later this month.


2008 Citizens Union Awards Dinner

Citizens Union is proud to announce that it will honor Agnes Gund and Janno Lieber at its 2008 Annual Awards Dinner. The dinner will be held on Tuesday, October 28th at the Waldorf=Astoria. Please save the date.


Who is Citizens Union?

Karen Washington, Citizens Union Board Member

Karen Washington is a community activist, working tirelessly on social, economic and environmental issues affecting the Bronx and NYC. A community gardener for 20 years she is a board member of the New York City Community Garden Coalition as well as the co-founder of La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition in the Bronx . La Familia Verde was founded to preserve and support community gardens. It now operates a community based Farmer’s Market in the Bronx.

Professionally Karen has been a physical therapist for over 30 years, having graduated magnum cum laude from Hunter College, from New York University with a master’s degree in Occupational Biomechanics and Ergonomics. She continues to balance her professional life with community service. She serves as a board member of the New York Botanical Garden and was honored earlier this year at the Citizens Committee for New York City annual New Yorkers for New York City Gala.

“I joined Citizens Union to represent the voice of a community that needed to be heard. As a person of color, living in a low income neighborhood there are many social, economic and political issues affecting my community. Citizen Union has allowed me to bring the grassroots perspective to social and political conversations. I have learned the importance of governance but most of all I have learned that we the people are the government. As citizens we have the right of free speech to voice our concerns and the right to hold our elected officials accountable. Government depends on laws; yet good government is only as good as its people.”

Join Citizens Union as a Member

With so many Citizens Union events coming up this spring and with important state legislative elections this fall, please take a moment to renew your membership in Citizens Union. With your support, we will be engaging New Yorkers in civic affairs and seize the important opportunities to limit the role of special interests and advance the public good in Albany and at City Hall.

When you stand with us for good government, Citizens Union is stronger and more influential. Our recent successes demonstrate the importance of New Yorkers coming together in a nonpartisan call for ethics, integrity, and accountability in government. Help make reform a reality!


Citizens Union In the News

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