Category Archives: Money

With Member Items Reform, Mark-Viverito Creates Distance from Quinn

By myself and Nick PowellPublished in City & State

One Speaker’s power grab is the next Speaker’s platform for reform.

The New York City Council’s annual practice of handing out discretionary funds to nonprofit organizations and other local groups has long been a point of contentious debate, both within city government and among good-government organizations. Some say the process is ripe for corruption and abuse, while others argue that member items are an effective mechanism for funding organizations that provide vital community services.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Council can take a step toward ensuring more equitability in the member items system, one part of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s proposed sweeping rules reform package that will receive a public hearing before the Council’s Rule Committee. The member items section calls for all discretionary spending given to City Council members to be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”

All 51 members of the Council receive discretionary funds each year that go toward “local initiatives”— i.e., nonprofit and community-based organizations—with the exact amount determined by various factors but never less than $80,000 per district.

The changes to the formula will include making equal the distribution of core member item amounts—“core” being those that go toward local organizations, as well as those that serve children or seniors. There will also be a needs-based increase to Council members based on the number of people in poverty in their respective districts, which could add up to 25 percent of a Council member’s core discretionary amount for antipoverty efforts.

The most momentous member items change, however, is to the Speaker’s power over her own pot of discretionary funds—dubbed the “Speaker’s List”—which funds organizations that provide services that exceed the amount an individual member can fund, or that serve a larger geographical area than a single Council district. Under the new rules, the Speaker would no longer have the authority to decide how much of the discretionary funding each Council member is given to distribute to local organizations and projects each year—a privilege the previous Speaker, Christine Quinn, had been accused of abusing, according to current and former Council members. Instead, the Speaker’s List will be limited to 50 percent of total discretionary member expense allocations.

“We will take the politics out of member items,“ said Mark-Viverito when she announced the rules change proposal.

Unfairly or not, there was a widespread perception that Quinn used her pot of discretionary funds as a means to punish recalcitrant members and reward the fealty of others. Tony Avella, a former Councilman who is now a state senator, told City & State last year that because of his outspoken behavior, Quinn had denied him member items as a means of retaliation.

A July 2011 member items analysis issued by then Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer (now the city comptroller) reinforced this notion, finding significant disparities in member item allocations across the city’s Council districts. For instance, former Councilman Domenic Recchia, an ally of Quinn’s, received the most dollars in member items from the Speaker: $1,630,064. On the flip side, former Councilman Charles Barron, one of Quinn’s most vocal detractors, received the third-lowest amount: $399,464.

“Personally, the prior Speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished … money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker,” said Councilwoman Inez Barron, who took over the Council seat of her husband, Charles, after he was term-limited out of office.

Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who served under Quinn as well, agreed with Barron’s assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of the proposed rule changes.  “I represent the fifth-poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previous Speaker was [being] penalized—and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”

To be fair, many of the transparency reforms to the member items process that Mark-Viverito has floated largely piggyback on reforms Quinn had already put in place. Quinn made sure that the Schedule C form, which lists those organizations applying for Council discretionary funds, was made public, along with the name of the member who sponsors each item and the amount and stated purpose of the funding. The reforms under Quinn also required applications and allocations for member items funding to be searchable through the Council’s website.

Mark-Viverito’s proposal builds on those measures by adding discretionary spending awards to the city’s Open Data Plan; creating new “open data” requirements to facilitate the searching and downloading of discretionary spending awards; and requiring discretionary fund grantees to provide a short report on their use of the money.

Mark-Viverito has made a concerted effort to distance herself from her predecessor since taking over the Speaker post in January, aiming to fashion herself a consensus builder in the chamber. Her first major legislative initiative, an expansion of the paid sick leave law—which Quinn bottled up in the Council before relenting and passing it last year while running for mayor—passed overwhelmingly. With member items reform on the table, Mark-Viverito can potentially close another controversial chapter of Quinn’s tenure.

Interestingly, Mark-Viverito, one of the first four Council members to pilot participatory budgeting back in 2011, did not include institutional support for PB as part of her package of rules reforms, even though she had previously been in favor of doing so. Participatory budgeting is a method currently being employed by a handful of Council members to promote civic engagement in their communities. The residents of districts represented by Council members who choose to participate in PB are allocated a portion of their members’ discretionary funds to vote on how they would like it to be distributed.

“The idea of getting the institutional support from the Council as a body to really create a more uniform process [for participatory budgeting] that would be applicable at a citywide level—and those of us that are doing it would advocate for it too—that brings visibility and accountability,” Mark-Viverito told City & State in August.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed member items reforms will satisfy Mayor Bill de Blasio and several good-government organizations that have called for discretionary funding to be banned outright. Through statements, the mayor has reiterated his stance that member items should be eliminated, yet the Council does not need the mayor’s approval to change its rules.

The proposed changes also offer Mark-Viverito an opportunity to contest the notion that she is too close with the mayor politically—a criticism that was also leveled at Quinn for her relationship with former mayor Michael Bloomberg. For her part, Mark-Viverito was confident the reforms she laid out would be enough to win over Mayor de Blasio.

“We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts,” said Mark-Viverito. “These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community-based services … so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the mayor.”

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Filed under Christine Quinn, Inez Barron, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Member Item Reform, Money

City Council Speaker Announces Rules Reform, Changes to Discretionary Item Funding

On Tuesday afternoon, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a sweeping rules reform package that included changes to member discretionary allocation for over $50 million given to the City Council to spend annually. In the proposed reforms, all discretionary spending given to City Council members will be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”  That formula will include a base amount given to every City Council member, and an increase based on the number of people living in poverty in their district. The Speaker’s own discretionary funding will be limited to 50% of total discretionary member expense allocations.

Beyond the money, there will be new open data requirements for discretionary spending, the creation of a dedicated legislative drafting unit to draft legislation requested by members, a plain-language summary of bills, a written attendance policy, and a “supermajority bill sponsorship” that would require bills with 34 co-sponsors to have a Committee decide whether or not to hold a hearing.

These are major changes, and what some see as a response to the politically-motivated allocation practices of former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The mood in the City Council’s Red Room was celebratory, with many Council Members thanking Speaker Mark-Viverito for making good on her election promises, and seemingly acting against her own self-interest allocate the money.  “This process began last fall when 34 new and returning members signed onto a platform calling for significant reforms to the Council’s rules,” said Mark-Viverito.  “What followed was an exhaustive and comprehensive top to bottom look on the Councils’ existing rules…we engaged with members so the public, good government groups… and we did a public hearing where we took hours of testimony on best practices.”

“We will take the politics out of member items,“ she said.

Councilman Brad Lander, Chair of the Rules Committee that helped develop the reforms,  (and who later in the day turned his blazer inside-out in support of Clippers players) was ebullient.  “I challenge the press and the historian here to find any set of reforms that’s more bold and comprehensive and moves the Council forward towards good government in any point in it’s history.”

Inez Barron, for her part, spoke about the Fresh Democracy Council in 2002 that tried to introduce rule reforms.  “The problem was that those that were pushed through and accepted were not embraced and not implemented, because the Speaker at that time did not embrace it. “  After the press conference, Barron was very forthcoming with her opinions about former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who removed former Councilman Charles Barron (Inez’s husband) from the Committee on Higher Education.

“Personally, the prior speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished…  money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker. So it was a reflection more of a political debt in terms of financial support …My predecessor Councilmember Charles Barron [Councilwoman Barron’s husband] didn’t get as much from the speaker, but he was resourceful enough and persistent enough to reach out to other agencies to get them to buy into projects that he wanted to have in his district.”

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, whose district is in the Bronx, agreed with that assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of these reforms.  “I represent the 5th poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previously speaker was penalized, and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”

Dick Dadey, the Executive Director of the non-profit citizen’s Union, was positive about the proposed reforms. “Today’s proposed rules reform will do much to change the way in which the council operates.  It will be a much more democratically run…and allow members to be able to represent better their constituents, and result in more equitable distribution of funds for al the neighborhoods of the city as well as allow members to advocate and push for legislation that serves the needs of their districts.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio is known to be against discretionary item funding.  City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito disagrees.  “I’ve been a very, very strong a defender…of the discretionary allocations.  We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts.  These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community based services…so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the Mayor.”

Another public hearing about the rules reforms will be held on May 7th.






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Filed under City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Money

City Council Proposes More Disclosure on Independent Expenditure

On Friday afternoon, the Government Operations Subcommittee of the City Council met to discuss the issue of the moment – money in politics. Yesterday, a federal judge struck down New York State’s limit on contributions to independent groups that support political candidates. Previously, New York put a $150,000 limit on such contributions. The tone in City Council was somber about the decision as Council Members considered several bills to make campaign disclosures more transparent. “Transparency may be the only safeguard that we have against the potentially corrupting influence of money,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres. Representatives from the Campaign Finance Board testified, as well as the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause. Amy Loprest from CFB spoke about Proposition 148-A, a bill that would increase independent expenditure disclosure requirements. “During the 2013 elections, ‘Jobs for New York’ spent more than 4.9 million…for the average voter looking at a mailing for the group…nothing about it’s name would indicate that it was backed by contributions for the real estate industry,” she said. “The goal here is to provide disclosure, not to discourage independent expenditures” said Councilmember Brad Lander, a sponsor of 148-A. “I wouldn’t mind if we had some other way to discourage independent expenditures, but the goal of this legislation is to encourage disclosure.”

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Filed under Campaign Finance Board, City Council, Elections, Money

Heard Around Town: Vicki Been on HPD Downsizing and the Sequestration

Published in City & State

Vicki Been, the new commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, was put on the spot about the agency’s downsizing program for subsidized housing yesterday during a City Council hearing. This downsizing involves moving tenants from apartments that are too big for residents to more appropriately sized ones. Questioning from City Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James at the hearing centered around the sick and elderly who go through tremendous shock or strain if moved to a new, unfamiliar apartment that may not be suited to their needs. The appeals period was another area of concern—a period of only 15 days—which many cited as not enough time for someone to get documentation of a medical condition from a doctor. The downsizing is a result of the 2013 national sequestration. HPD was hit with a sudden and brutal $37 million in federal cuts.  Been said that HPD downsized to prevent kicking out approximately 3,000 families from public housing. “I’m faced with a Congress that is dysfunctional at best, and is leaving us in the position where we’re either cutting people out of our program and taking vouchers away… or taking these kinds of steps to try and save some dollars so we don’t have to cut people off the program…It’s not a choice that I or my staff have taken lightly. It pains us enormously. And that’s where we are.”

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Filed under Budget, City Council, Housing, Money

De Blasio Benefited From D’Amato Money

Published in City & State

New York City is still in the halcyon days of a Bill de Blasio victory, and news coverage abounds about the sharp left turn the city has taken. It’s ironic, then, that as a candidate de Blasio was quietly collecting contributions from employees, business partners and family members of former U.S. senator and current lobbyist Alfonse D’Amato, the man whom many still view as the most powerful Republican in the state. While D’Amato was supporting Thompson, his associates were funding a de Blasio victory before the primary had even taken place. A total of $117,845 D’Amato-connected money was donated to the de Blasio campaign, $107,520 of which was donated before the primaries.

D’Amato, a founding partner of Park Strategies consulting group, openly supported Bill Thompson during the primaries, bundling $69,800 and even going so far as to stump for him in key Orthodox sections of Crown Heights on the Sunday before the election. At the same time that D’Amato was openly favoring Thompson, however, D’Amato-connected money was being directed towards Thompson’s rival and future mayor-elect.

Park Strategies has produced two big-money de Blasio bundlers: managing directors David Poleto and Joel Giambra. Poleto raised $7,850; Giambra, $28,350. Poleto has donors that include a Park Strategies vice president, John Zagame ($400), as well as Alfonse’s relative Amy D’Amato—who through Poleto donated $2,000 to de Blasio from 2011 to 2012, and another $2,475 after the primaries. Poleto himself gave only a few hundred to de Blasio, but Deborah Poleto gave $3,950. In de Blasio’s previous campaign for public advocate in 2009, D’Amato’s wife, Katuria, maxed out, donating $4,950.

Park Strategy employees with more modest contributions to de Blasio include Kraig Siracuse ($200), Ryan Moses ($1,000), Robert McBride ($2,500, after the primary), Peter Molinaro ($150), Joe Rossi ($100) and former Assembly Speaker Melvin Miller ($400, after the primary).

Another source of D’Amato money comes from Anthony Bonomo, owner of Physicians Reciprocal Insurance, and a client of Park Strategies.  His fundraising includes $2,475 from Greg Serio, a partner and managing director at Park Strategies. Bonomo co-hosted a McCain fundraiser with D’Amato in 2008, and helped direct funds to the Paterson campaign. He bundled a total of $44,550 for de Blasio.

Bonomo is also the link to Howard Fensterman, who bundled $20,400 for de Blasio. Fensterman raised money from Anthony Bonomo, as well as Jaclyn and Julianne Bonomo.

These donors are especially noteworthy, as they have no obvious ties to New York City. Bonomo’s company is based in Roslyn, on Long Island. Giambra is the former Erie County executive, and all the money he raised is from the Buffalo area. This disconnect makes it all the more likely they raised funds for de Blasio on behalf of D’Amato, a lobbyist who depends very heavily on cultivating a good relationship with city government.

Leonard Litwin, a longtime D’Amato associate and lobbyist, also maxed out at $4,950 to de Blasio. Charles Modica, founder and chancellor of St. George’s University, maxed out to de Blasio at $4,950, and previously donated to the Friends of Senator D’Amato committee. More significantly, however, he and D’Amato have a history dating back to at least 1983, when D’Amato brokered a deal to get 350 St. George students temporarily admitted to the Brooklyn Center of Long Island University and St. Barnabas in New Jersey after a coup in Grenada.

When asked about D’Amato’s involvement with contributions to the de Blasio campaign, Park Strategies Managing Director Dave Catalfamo emphasized that D’Amato was a supporter of Thompson.

“One of the partners in our firm, David Poleto, has a long-standing relationship with de Blasio, and did in fact help raise money on his behalf, and has done so before, throughout de Blasio’s public career,” Catalfamo said. “That’s where that tie comes from.” The de Blasio campaign did not return a request for comment.

A three-term senator, D’Amato lost his re-election bid in 1998 to Charles Schumer, but has maintained his status as a major political player. After his Senate career D’Amato started Park Strategies, and went into consulting and lobbying. He also appears on the Fox News Channel and Bloomberg Radio, and is featured as one of the “Wise Guy” commentators on NY1.

As for Park Strategies, its list of clients is impressive, and directors lobby on the national, state and city levels. D’Amato was once famously paid $500,000 in 2003 for making a single phone call to the MTA chairman on behalf of a building owner. In 2013 Park Strategies is on record in New York City as lobbying for eight companies, one of which (CGI Technologies and Solutions) is currently listed as having business before the city. Of 110 clients on the state level for the 2013–14 year, 15 have business before the city, and of the 26 clients on the national level, three have business before the city.

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Filed under Elections, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Money