Editorial Roundup: New York

Newsday. June 9, 2021.

Editorial: Plan for MTA goes off track

For a brief moment, there seemed to be a path forward for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that would allow two seasoned transit leaders to share the conductor’s seat and navigate the agency toward recovery.

But just as quickly as the plan emerged to make Sarah Feinberg the MTA’s next chairwoman and Janno Lieber the next chief executive, it imploded.

This is what happens when government fails. And it’s the riders of the Long Island Rail Road, along with those on subways, buses and Metro-North, who lose out. At a critical juncture, when the MTA needs steady hands and solid leadership, it’s left with an uncertain future.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s effort just days before the end of the state legislative session to pitch a bill that would split the top MTA job into two, both held previously by Pat Foye, was a good idea, especially when both jobs have enormous responsibilities and challenges. But Cuomo’s decision to spring it without any notice or discussion with lawmakers or MTA board members, without the smoothing of egos Albany needs, helped lead to its downfall.

Feinberg, who would’ve been the first woman to hold the job, also required State Senate confirmation — again, with just a few days left. Lieber, meanwhile, would have reported directly to the governor. Both were solid picks, but questions — especially in terms of Feinberg’s connections to Cuomo, her critiques of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and her push for more police in the subways — remained, and there was too little time to get answers.

In perhaps an indication of how Cuomo’s power has shifted, union leaders, advocates and, ultimately, the State Senate pushed back. By Wednesday afternoon, the bill to split the chair/CEO positions was dead. Unless something changes quickly, if Foye still leaves the MTA for the state’s economic development agency come July, Cuomo and the MTA likely will need someone who can take on the massive dual role. It’s unclear whether either Feinberg or Lieber would be the choice.

Cuomo and the State Legislature shouldn’t give up on the idea of splitting the jobs. If done well, with the right people, it makes sense.

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New York Post. June 15, 2021.

Editorial: Chuck Schumer’s relief plan bombs on Broadway

Oops: Sen. Chuck Schumer’s much-hyped rescue of Broadway is turning out to be stuck in rehearsals.

The Senate majority leader got $16 billion for it in Democrats’ January relief bill, but the payments didn’t start flowing in May as promised.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was supposed to provide checks for 45 percent of a venue’s gross income in 2019 as what Schumer described on Twitter as “EMERGENCY SURVIVAL” help.

But the application system failed at launch, so you couldn’t even apply until April. And actually qualifying has proved tougher still.

A spokeswoman for the Broadway League said none of its members (producers and theater owners) has reported getting OK’d. And some are finding it hard to convince the feds they’re even alive.

The New York Times reported multiple denials to owners like Michael Swier of the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge — who all somehow wound up as Do Not Pay because their names show on the federal Death Master File.

That’s a pretty grim sign of Uncle Sam’s ability to get funds to any of the many people Team Biden wants to help. Add in the Axios report that criminals may have stolen up to half of all unemployment benefits over the past year, and Democrats’ dream of running endless direct-assistance plans looks more like a nightmare.

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New York Times. June 10, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t Overthink Ranked-Choice Voting, New York City

Last month this board endorsed Kathryn Garcia for mayor of New York City and urged voters to cast a ballot for her in the June 22 Democratic primary. (Early voting begins June 12.)

Normally, that would be the end of it. But this year’s ballot looks different, for mayor and for other citywide races. Instead of having only one choice in each race, New York City voters have the opportunity to rank up to five candidates, in order of preference.

Ranked-choice voting, as it’s known, has been in use for decades around the world and has been gaining popularity around the United States recently. That’s for good reason: It allows voters to vote for candidates they genuinely like best, it forces candidates to appeal to more voters than they might in a traditional election, and it results in a winner who is acceptable to a majority of the electorate.

The whole point of representative democracy is — or should be — to elect leaders who are chosen by a broad cross-section of voters and who are responsive to all of them. This matters all the more today, when distortions like partisan gerrymandering have warped the relationship between voters and their representatives.

New York City, which adopted ranked-choice voting by referendum in 2019, is so far the largest jurisdiction in the country to give it a try. This year’s Democratic primary is just what the system was designed for. A large and diverse slate of candidates, none of whom seem likely to pull away from the pack and win an outright majority in the first count, is an ideal scenario for ranked-choice voting to play out.

Still, many New Yorkers remain confused or apprehensive about the new system. Here’s how it works in practice, and here are the two key things to keep in mind when you go to fill out your ballot.

First, vote with your heart, at least for your top choice. Don’t try to game the system or do mental gymnastics about your rankings. The great thing about ranked-choice voting, in contrast to the traditional first-past-the-post method, is that you have the freedom to vote for the candidate you like best and still have a say in the outcome if that candidate doesn’t win.

Second, it’s best if you fill in your ballot completely, which means ranking five candidates, not one or two or three. You’re not required to do this, but if you do, the system works better. If you don’t and the candidate or candidates you rank are eliminated, your ballot stops counting. Filling in all five rankings eliminates this problem of “exhausted ballots,” and it guarantees your voice will count in the choosing of the next mayor — even if that person wasn’t your first (or second or third) choice.

It’s also a good idea to include at least one of the front-runners on your ballot, even if you put him or her at the very bottom. That way you are more likely to have a say all the way to the end.

What does this mean for the 2021 mayoral race and how you should fill out your ballot?

If you agree with us that Ms. Garcia should get the job, rank her first. If you prefer another candidate, rank that person first. After that, rank the other candidates you like — or whom you could at least live with being mayor — in order of your preference.

Whichever candidates you choose, be patient. There is a good chance New Yorkers won’t know on election night who their next mayor will probably be. It could take a few weeks to get a final result, in fact.

Not only can ranked-choice ballots take longer to tabulate, but New York, after decades of operating in the electoral Dark Ages, has also finally adopted several modern voting reforms, including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Absentee ballots are allowed to arrive up to a week after the election, and voters have seven business days to fix any problems that might invalidate their ballots. Because so many people are expected to vote absentee this year, those ballots may be decisive in one or more races.

The city plans to release first-choice totals from early votes and Election Day votes on election night. One week later, it will release a ranked-choice tally of those ballots plus any absentee ballots that have arrived and been processed, which could result in a different candidate taking the lead.

As soon as all absentee ballots are in and errors are fixed, the city needs to promptly release all results. A bill under consideration in Albany would provide public access to the raw digital data of ballots within a week after an election, allowing anyone to run that data through a ranked-choice software program and get a result. (The bill has passed the Senate and is waiting for a vote in the assembly.)

The bottom line: Don’t overthink things. Vote for your favored candidates, in the order you prefer them. Fill in your whole ballot.

This year’s mayoral election is perhaps the most consequential in a generation, so it’s fitting that voters will have an opportunity to decide that election in a new and more democratic way. By adopting ranked-choice voting, New Yorkers gave themselves more of a voice in choosing their leaders. It’s time to use it.

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Advance Media New York. June 13, 2021.

Editorial: Marijuana ticketing scheme sought guns, seeded mistrust instead

Syracuse police are under intense pressure to do something about gun violence. In their zeal to get guns off the street, they engaged in a questionable campaign to search vehicles in predominantly poor neighborhoods. Over seven months, members of a special crime-fighting unit issued nearly 1,000 tickets to city residents for low-level marijuana possession, knowing full well that they would be kicked out of court.

In the process, hundreds of people guilty only of minor traffic infractions — or guilty of nothing at all — were exposed to police encounters that could have gone wrong, to intrusive searches of their cars, to court appearances that were a waste of time, and to fines they could least afford to pay.

The marijuana ticketing scheme, reported by staff writer Chris Libonati, ended when the state Legislature legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and blocked police from using its odor as a pretext to search a car.

But even before the Legislature acted, police knew that District Attorney William Fitzpatrick had stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession in 2019. Issuing marijuana tickets that were doomed from the start was a cynical abuse of police power.

Syracuse Police defended the practice as having led to confiscation of 43 guns, 17 of them from stops where marijuana tickets were issued, over a period of nine months, and as a deterrent to gun possession. To University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner, who has studied traffic stops, what Syracuse police were doing “adds up to a war on low-level marijuana users who happen to fit a profile the police target. The question is: Is that making us safer?”

We’re not convinced it is.

Gun ownership grew exponentially during the coronavirus pandemic, to where a third of U.S. adults say they own a gun. Knowing police are stopping cars to search for guns, someone intent on committing violence would be foolish to carry one. In fact, a common tactic used by gangs is to “stash” a gun where someone in the know can find it. There is scant evidence correlating pretext stops to decreases in crime, similar to the discredited police tactic, “stop and frisk.”

If the “benefit” side of the equation is cloudy, the “cost” side is clear.

Pretext stops damage trust between police and the people they are supposed to protect.

They invite racial profiling. Libonati found that nearly 90 percent of the marijuana tickets were written to Black people in a city that is 30 percent Black. Nearly 80 percent of those ticketed were Black men. Little wonder that aggressive over-policing of Syracuse’s minority community was an issue in last summer’s racial justice protests after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

These stops are more than an inconvenience; they can be traumatizing. Traffic stops account for 10 percent of cases where police kill someone, Libonati reported. During the trial of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder, suburban Minneapolis police shot and killed Daunte Wright after stopping him for a minor traffic violation.

At bottom, there is this: Americans have a constitutional right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures …” The Supreme Court has upheld pretext stops as constitutional, and so police constantly push the boundaries — as they did here.

Police Chief Kenton Buckner declined to be interviewed for the story. He ought to clearly explain the logic of pretext stops. Can the police prove it works? Who are they pulling over, based on what suspicion? How are they guarding against abuse? Then the public can decide if that’s what we want our government to do.

There are other approaches to reducing gun violence. Cities have tried strategies like employing “violence interrupters” to mediate conflicts between groups of young people; identifying risk factors to improve violence prevention; turning vacant lots into green spaces to remove hiding places for guns; reducing gun theft; and, longer term, meaningfully changing the economic prospects of young people through education, housing and jobs.

After George Floyd’s death, racial minorities demanded an honest accounting of police tactics that disproportionately harmed their communities. Similarly, an honest accounting of pretext stops should lead police to cease this practice and find better ways to reduce gun violence.

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Albany Times-Union. June 16, 2021.

Editorial: An insider for elections

THE ISSUE:

An insider slides into the top election law enforcement post.

THE STAKES:

New York doesn’t need another watchdog without teeth.

It is only human to hope that someone entering a new job does well — especially when the job in question is important to the functioning of our democracy. But in the case of Michael L. Johnson, the new-minted chief enforcement counsel at the state Board of Elections, we’re sorry to say we have a few concerns.

Quietly nominated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mr. Johnson easily cleared the hurdles of confirmation in the final days of the 2021 session. His appearances before the Assembly Election Law Committee and Senate Finance Committee were sleepy verging on comatose; he faced precisely zero probing questions from lawmakers. In the Senate meeting, the only lawmaker to even address the nominee at any length was Sen. Diane Savino, who instead of using the time to, say, ask Mr. Johnson how he would enforce campaign finance laws, took the opportunity to excoriate the former enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman.

Sen. Savino, it’s worth noting, is a former member of the chamber’s Independent Democratic Conference, which ran afoul of Ms. Sugarman and campaign finance law after it began collecting “housekeeping” cash in league with the state Independence Party. That case was one of several in which Ms. Sugarman displayed a willingness to go after powerful pols — not that her tenure was as robust as it could have been, considering the free-fire zone of straw donors, late filers and other bad actors gaming New York’s system. She also faced abundant criticism from inside and outside the board that her unit failed to clamp down on small-bore violations in order to focus on high-profile cases.

Staff and commissioners of the Board of Elections viewed Ms. Sugarman as an interloper whose presence was a reminder of the criticism served up to them in 2014 by the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. That panel ruthlessly anatomized how the board tended to “do the basement” — as little as possible, that is — in terms of enforcement.

Mr. Johnson worked for the board in an enforcement role in 2005 and 2006, a period not celebrated as a golden age of election law compliance. Since then, he has held a series of jobs that made him a political insider, including more than a decade as counsel to the late Assemblyman Denny Farrell. More recently, he worked as an attorney and diversity officer at the state Dormitory Authority.

As evidenced by the near-total silence from the lawmakers (even the Republicans who tacitly opposed his nomination) who encountered him in last week’s committee meetings, there is almost nothing in Mr. Johnson’s resume to give powerful politicians worry that he will be the sort of strong watchdog that — based on decades if not centuries of evidence — New York sorely needs.

If we harbor doubts that Mr. Johnson was selected for anything other than being simpatico with the governor and the lawmakers who needed to approve his nomination, we will be overjoyed to be proven wrong. We long to see Mr. Johnson enforcing campaign finance and election law without fear or favor, mindful of the notion that whoever his political patrons used to be, he works for the people now.

END