Education Supplement: Charter Corrections

Two different bells ring on the top floor of the three-story brick school building at Palmetto Street and Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. One marks the end of the period at Bushwick Community High School, the other the end of a class at the new MESA Charter High School. After a teacher at J.H.S. 291, the third school residing in the building, complained about how early the middle schoolers would have to eat lunch, the bell for lunch at MESA now doesn’t ring until 1:39 p.m.

Such considerations come from the limited P.A. system and space at the building shared by the schools through former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy known as “co-location.” MESA, which operates with funds from the city Department of Education but without that agency’s daily oversight, was launched by executive director Arthur Samuels and principal Pagee Cheung after the two former Columbia Teachers College classmates won approval for a school offering longer hours and college-admissions classes from day one. It’s one of 24 public charters that opened this past fall in the city, just as voters overwhelmingly elected a mayoral candidate promising a new approach to the 183 city charters that have opened since 1998, when the state authorized their creation.

Charters have become a lightning rod for criticism under Bloomberg, especially from public-school parents who see them as seeking special preferences to import wealthy chain schools into already-cramped school buildings. (DNAinfo’s report last month that the city Education Department “moved heaven and earth” to clear space for Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain only confirmed many parents’ suspicions.) Mayor Bill de Blasio has often criticized well-funded network charters for creating winners and losers within city schools, and though he said last summer that “there are some very good charter schools, and I’m glad we have them,” he has also called for charging co-located schools rent and a possible moratorium on co-locations.

The divisive conflict between those supportive of Bloomberg’s charter policies and those adamantly opposed is not conducive to a quality education, according to one charter supporter who takes issue with politicians on both sides.

“They’re creating a tense environment that’s not helpful for the schools,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU who resigned as chair of the SUNY board that authorizes charters last spring because he thought co-located charters had begun to undermine public schools.

Folks at MESA — which stands for Math, Engineering and Science Academy — are striving to show that not all co-located charters are alike. Ninety percent of MESA’s student body comes from the majority-Latino Bushwick neighborhood, and most of the remaining 10 percent comes from nearby Bed-Stuy, the result of a lottery that gave preference to area families and students who aren’t proficient in English.

“I think MESA is doing exactly what Mayor de Blasio wants,” says Samuels, a 35-year-old former teacher and guidance counselor whose research with Cheung had shown that the neighborhood was ripe for a new high school. “We’re serving these kids who haven’t had access to a quality education.”

Both the larger Bushwick neighborhood and MESA’s building in particular have had troubles in that department. Only half the students who entered ninth grade in 2007 in Brooklyn’s District 32 graduated, according to state figures. And 364 high schoolers in the neighborhood dropped out of school altogether last year. The building MESA is sharing with J.H.S. 291 and Bushwick Community High School had about three times as many criminal incidents as similar-size student populations during the 2011–12 school year, according to city education department figures.

The two high-performing public high schools in the district, meanwhile — the Academy for Environmental Leadership and the All-City Leadership Secondary School — only have space for a collective 641 students. But Samuels says he never tried to act as though he was a neighborhood savior.

“It was never, ‘Here’s the solution,'” Samuels says. “It was more, ‘We have some ideas; we’d like to share them with you and hear what you think.'”

Samuels’s ideas — honed at his previous posts at charter high schools in Williamsburg and Harlem — consisted of supplemental classes like the hands-on experiments and active discussions of a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) class in addition to regular science and math classes. Ninth graders would take writing seminars on grammar, sentence structure, and essay writing, and start mandatory annual “college bound” classes on the importance of attending college and how to get in. And a longer school day and year would give MESA students 35 percent more instruction than standard public schools.

On a recent school day, Samuels and Cheung greeted students at the 9 a.m. start of the school day and the 4:37 p.m. dismissal, praising well-behaved students who had earned what the school refers to as “shout-outs.” In between, they roamed the halls between classes to ensure that students were moving at “MESA pace” rather than idling in the hallways. Parents receive emails each Monday with teacher comments and a rating of their child’s effort the previous week on a scale of one to four.


Nilsa Cedeño, whose daughter Briana attends the school, says it’s been amazing to see “the transformation of where they were in middle school to where they are today at MESA,” noting that some parents say their kids have done a complete turnaround. She added that the weekly reports from teachers allow MESA parents to take a “proactive rather than reactive” approach.

Not every charter gets such high compliments. City charters enroll a lower percentage of special education students and only 5.9 percent English language learners — compared to 15.6 percent at public schools, according to the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit charter advocacy group. And even MESA’s inaugural group of 20 special education students and 30 English language learners, both higher proportions than the overall average for the district’s high schools, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that those students are getting the services they need.

“I think it’s great the school is making this effort to serve the majority of the children in the neighborhood,” says Paulina Davis of Advocates for Children of New York, an anti-discrimination group for special needs students. “But, like with anything, it’s more than just getting them in the door.”

MESA scores well on at least two of Davis’s indicators for schools that provide adequate support for disadvantaged students. MESA hired four teachers for the school’s special education students and two specialists for the English language learners, and all school communications come in both English and Spanish.

Samuels worries that he may have to reduce overall staffing at MESA if the school has to pay rent, as de Blasio may require of city charters that share public school buildings. Critics of co-located charters charge that they get the benefit of public facilities without paying for utilities, security staff, or maintenance; according to a 2011 study by the Independent Budget Office, this allows charters to spend $649 more per student than traditional public schools.

A fee based on the cost per pupil for using the public buildings could net the city up to $92 million per year, and de Blasio has made a point of flogging the most visible representative of city charter schools in public appearances and debates. “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?” de Blasio said to cheers at a candidate forum last summer. “There are charters that are much, much better endowed in terms of resources than the public sector ever hoped to be. It is insult to injury to give them free rent.”

De Blasio’s other proposal, a moratorium on new co-locations, comes after he took the Bloomberg Administration to task as public advocate for treating hearings on co-locations as mere “procedural hurdles,” with few parents being aware of imminent space-sharing arrangements at their children’s schools, according to a July 2010 report by his office.

A resolution calling on the State Legislature to adopt a one-year ban on any new co-locations has widespread support in the City Council, and other Bloomberg critics raised their strong opposition to the 58 proposed new co-locations for 2014 and 2015 at an Oct. 3 hearing with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Ponderous examples — such as a new school for a campus in Brooklyn that has occupied moldy trailers for decades; the final approval of four new school-sharing arrangements in Queens just 30 days after they were first made public; and a proposal to co-locate a nonexistent school without a name, administrator, or identity at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn — filled the six-hour hearing.

For MESA, the most important question is whether a proposed ban will keep existing charters from expanding. MESA expects to grow from its current ninth grade class of 132 students this year to a full high school of more than 500 students by 2016 under the city’s building utilization plan. Over the same time period, J.H.S. 291’s enrollment will fall from 596 in 2012 to a range of 510 to 540 students, and the community high school will stay level with 340 to 380 students. Prior to MESA, the building was about half full, according to the city Department of Education. Once the co-location is complete, the building will still house only 68 to 76 percent of the students it has space for.

Shared space is not a charter-school issue alone. Only 10 percent of 1,100 co-located schools in 538 buildings are charters, according to DOE officials. The practice of public schools sharing buildings in New York City has been going on since 1898, but accelerated under Bloomberg, as the DOE closed 164 schools and opened 654 new ones citywide. The speed of the changes, the diminished enrollment numbers and space for existing schools in the same building, and the disparities in city funds turned charter co-location into an issue of haves and have-nots.


“What happened is that some charters are basically squeezing out public schools,” says Noguera.

But on the day the Village Voice visited MESA, differences in the facilities were difficult to identify. Unlike at some charters, students don’t get free iPads; MESA’s only computer lab has a dozen old PCs.

The real disparity lay in how MESA students were learning. A special education teacher helped three students organize their notebooks for a new trimester. Just down the hall, Zalykha Mokim taught a dozen or so non-proficient students how to write an analytical essay in English, calling them her “angelitos” even as she quickly scolded any student whose attention waned.

In general, MESA has enjoyed support from its neighbors. Both Bushwick Community High School principal Llermi Gonzalez and Jacqueline Rosado, principal of J.H.S. 291, have spoken out in favor of the co-location at past public hearings. (Gonzalez and Rosado declined Voice requests for comment.) At a hearing last January, only one strong dissenter spoke out against the co-location, expressing safety concerns about adding another group of older students at the building.

Local councilman Rafael Espinal, who says he supports de Blasio’s charter moratorium because of the Bloomberg Administration’s “irresponsible” approach to co-locations, painted the walls of MESA and the community high school along with students at the two schools over the summer. But while he notes that neither of the public schools in the building actually pays rent, he doesn’t rule out a delay in MESA’s expansion to study the system-wide effects of co-locations.

“I think it’s something we should take seriously because we can’t favor one school or the other,” Espinal says.

Still, Espinal acknowledges that Samuels and Cheung made a significant effort to work with the community to gain support for MESA. “They didn’t blindside the community,” he says. “And they were willing to work with everyone in the community.”

Samuels says he doesn’t expect de Blasio’s proposals to hamper MESA’s growth or success. The state, rather than the city, authorized MESA’s charter to be a full high school by 2016, and he hopes his independent school won’t get lumped in with the larger and more cash-strapped chains.

“At the end of the day, there’s politics and good practice,” Samuels says. “And when they’re done right, I think they’re the same thing.”


Cringeworthy Photos From de Blasio and Bloomberg’s First Meeting Since the Election

Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio met at City Hall Wednesday morning for the first time since Tuesday’s election.

You know, the election where de Blasio campaigned against Bloomberg’s proudest achievements — like the rich getting richer while the poor are left behind (a period of economic prosperity, to Bloomberg), and stop-and-frisk (an important crime-reduction tool). De Blasio’s was the same campaign Mayor Bloomberg called “racist,” with shades of “class warfare.”

De Blasio later told reporters it was a “very productive meeting,” but it looked … uncomfortable.


Chirlane McCray Describes Bloomberg Snub

When Michael Bloomberg took office as mayor 12 years ago, he inherited a ban on cellphones and pagers in New York public schools. During his tenure, Bloomberg strengthened and defended that ban. He called phones unnecessary distractions and warned they might be used for pornography. (No one tell him about computers, OK?)

Bloomberg likes the ban, but apparently, he doesn’t like talking about it. In an interview with New York magazine, Chirlane McCray describes how Bloomberg turned his back on her when she broached the subject during an event at Gracie Mansion.

McCray’s husband, Bill de Blasio, has long been critical of the cellphone ban. Back in 2006 then-City Councilman de Blasio participated in a press conference calling on Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein to reverse the ban. “I want to help school-age families and educators strike a balance that ensures parents are empowered to take responsibility for their children’s welfare,” he said.

He has reiterated the opinion at appearances throughout his mayoral campaign, emphasizing parents’ safety concerns. At a forum in April, de Blasio told reporters, “I tried talking to the mayor about this.”

Back in 2006, McCray, told New York, she tried talking to him about it too. Bloomberg wasn’t having it.

McCray’s memory of one visit to Gracie Mansion is still vivid. She remembers going to a reception there in 2006 for council members and spouses. Chiara de Blasio — now 18 and a sophomore at a college in Northern California — had just begun middle school, and Bloomberg’s Department of Education had instituted a ban on student cell phones. McCray approached the mayor. “I said, ‘Mayor Bloomberg, you are my hero! Because you instituted the smoking ban, which is so important and has done so much for people who have respiratory problems in this city and for our children. I want to thank you for that. But the cell phones in the schools’–and as soon as I said the words cell phones, he turned his back and walked away from me,” she tells me. “I was so shocked. I had never had that experience before–someone just turning and walking away like that! Bill shook his head and said, ‘That’s just how he is.’ ”

If de Blasio wins the election — and he is poised to, by the biggest margin since 1985 — he has said he will overturn the ban.


Who Is The Rave Candidate? Mayoral Hopefuls Conspicuously Quiet On Electric Zoo

The final tally from two days of Electric Zoo: two dead, 19 “stricken,” 31 arrests, at least one sexual assault.

When the third day of the festival was called off, angry ravers directed their rage at Mayor Bloomberg for recommending the cancellation. In the days since though, Bloomberg has forcefully defended Electric Zoo’s organizer, Mike Bindra.

The Mayor told reporters on Tuesday, “we’ve been working with this promoter, organizer, for the past five years and they have a stellar record.”

He added, “The city will have to take a look at every concert to see if the concert can be run safely.”

Whether Electric Zoo will return next year or not won’t be Bloomberg’s choice to make in the end. The decision to continue festivals in public parks like Randall’s Island will be up to the next mayor–and, so far, none of the leading candidates will address the issue.

Of the 10 candidates contacted by the Voice, only two agreed to weigh in. Not coincidentally, they are the two longest shots for the democratic nomination, the candidates who did not poll high enough to participate in the final debate earlier this week.

Sal Albanese agreed with Bloomberg’s decision to shut the festival down. “It was the right move. No event is more important than a person’s life, and, unfortunately, it seems like not enough was being done to keep people safe,” he said.

As for future festivals, Albanese said the added revenue is tempting, “but we have to be careful not to turn parks into constant concert venues. Parks are supposed to be completely open to the public and provide a place for New Yorkers to get a break from the bustle of the city.”

In an emailed statement, Erick Salgado called the deaths at Electric Zoo “tragic,” and “the result of society’s [sic] embracing a drug culture.”

“We cannot be weak on drugs, as many of my opponents are. When our young people continuously hear politicians pushing for decriminalization or legalization of drugs they get the message that there’s nothing wrong, or worse something positive, in using drugs which leads to tragedy,” Salgado said. “Drugs are the enemy, not young people gathering to enjoy a concert. The music should be allowed to continue, but the city must make certain that future events are drug-free.”

And the other candidates? So far, they seem unwilling to take a stand either way.


Don’t Worry, Electric Zoo Will Be Back

Before the end of the second day of Electric Zoo two were dead after using MDMA, four others were hospitalized, a 16-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted, and 31 festival-goers had been arrested for offenses including “drug sales, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and possession of controlled substances.”

Just after 6 a.m. on what would have been the third and final day of the electronic music festival on Randall’s Island, organizers announced the rest of Electric Zoo was called off.

City officials recommended the festival’s organizers cancel the last day “due to serious health risks.”

According to the Times‘ report, “It remained unclear whether Electric Zoo, which was in its fifth year and had become a major attraction for electronic dance music fans, would return next year.”

Ravers were furious that Bloomberg, not content going after their Big Gulps, was shutting down their festivals, too.

They shouldn’t waste energy getting worked up about it though–if E Zoo is canceled next year, chances are it won’t be gone for long.

On Sunday, the mayor’s office issued a statement explaining why the city urged organizers to cancel. “Electric Zoo organizers have worked with city officials to reduce health risks at this event, but in view of these occurrences, the safest course is to cancel the remaining day of the event.”

There is little evidence to suggest that the health risks were any greater at the festival this year than in any of the four prior years, or than at any other EDM festival in the last five years.

There were similar drug-related deaths at the Electric Daisy Carnival when it was held at USC’s Coliseum in Los Angeles, and at Pop 2010 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Both of these events’ venues, like Randall’s Island where Electric Zoo was held, were owned by the local government. What happened in those cases offers an idea of what might be next for Electric Zoo.

When one died and nine were hospitalized at Pop 2010, outraged officials called for a ban on raves at the Cow Palace. Two years later, though, the event was back: Pop 2012 was held at a different arena jointly owned by city and county governments: Oracle Arena in Oakland.

The same thing is on track to happen in L.A.–Electric Daisy Carnival has not been held in Los Angeles since 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez overdosed on ecstasy at the festival in 2010. But in June, L.A.’s newly elected mayor, Eric Garcetti, said he supported bringing raves back to the L.A. Coliseum.

Asked during a Reddit AMA whether as mayor he would welcome music festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival back to L.A. Coliseum, Garcetti answered, “YES! I want some signature festivals here in LA, the music capital of the world.”

Bloomberg’s press secretary, asked whether this weekend’s deaths would affect future festivals, echoed that sentiment. “From Simon and Garfunkel to the Black Eyed Peas, concerts in parks and public spaces have been part of the fabric of New York City for decades,” Marc LaVorgna told the Times. He added, “We are examining what occurred at this weekend’s event.”

E Zoo will be back–because festivals like that bring in too much money to resist.

Correction: We originally attributed a quote to Eric Garcetti that was made by another user during the L.A. mayor’s Reddit AMA. This post has been updated to reflect the correct quote by Garcetti.



Bloomberg vs. Liu: Mayor Sues Comptroller Over Shelter Contracts

John Liu is in dead last in the race for New York City mayor, and it might be because he is spending a lot of energy battling Mayor Bloomberg. Maybe no one’s told him Bloomberg isn’t running this time?

Liu, the city comptroller, picked a fight with the mayor earlier this month when he rejected a pair of contracts the administration wanted to award to a company run by the mayor’s former commissioner of homeless services.

The contracts would have given Aguila Inc. $67.6 million to operate two city shelters, one on the Upper West Side and the other in the South Bronx.

The comptroller called Bloomberg out when he rejected the contracts in early July. “The administration’s homeless policies have failed both the homeless and communities asked to accept shelters, and it would be unconscionable to compound past errors with these faulty contracts,” Liu said in a statement.

Bloomberg was not happy about that. On Thursday, he made his displeasure known by filing a lawsuit in which he suggests that Liu’s rejection of the contracts amounted to an attempt “to usurp the mayor’s authority.”

The City Charter, Bloomberg’s lawyers will argue, says the comptroller can only void contracts when there is evidence of corruption.

Liu sassed the mayor on Twitter Sunday, like oh, so now you care about the City Charter

Liu may be wasting precious time on Bloomberg. Last week’s New York Times/Siena College poll put him squarely in last place among the major candidates, with just 7 percent of voters in his corner–well behind Quinn (27 percent), Weiner (18  percent), de Blasio (11 percent), and Thompson (11 percent).

Or maybe Liu is betting that running against Bloomberg will pay off. The same poll found that while a majority of voters approved of the job that Bloomberg has done, his endorsement would not affect the way they voted, while 28 percent said his support would make them less likely to support a candidate.


N.Y. Politicians on Zimmerman Verdict: We’re Pissed, Too

On Saturday, a Florida jury shocked the nation by acquitting George Zimmerman of all charges in the shooting death teenager Trayvon Martin. In New York City, politicians and candidates for office made sure voters heard their opinions of the verdict loud and clear.

Mayor Bloomberg used the occasion to criticize Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the key piece of legislation keeping Zimmerman out of jail.

“Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known. But one fact has long been crystal clear: ‘shoot first’ laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns,” Bloomberg said in a statement on Sunday. “Such laws–drafted by gun lobby extremists in Washington–encourage deadly confrontations by enabling people to shoot first and argue ‘justifiable homicide’ later.”

The candidates vying for Bloomberg’s job–former Representative Anthony Weiner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Comptroller John C. Liu, and Erick Salgado–issued their own statements about the verdict on Twitter.

City comptroller candidate and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer added his voice to the calls for justice both on Twitter and at the Union Square rally on Sunday.

Today at 1 p.m., New York Congressmen Gregory Meeks, Hakeem Jeffries, and Charles Rangel will gather outside Manhattan’s federal courthouse and call on the Department of Justice to investigate whether the verdict violates civil rights.

Jeffries and Meeks both issued statements earlier this weekend. Meeks said he was “deeply disappointed” in the jury’s decision, adding, “I hope that our common humanity compels us to say that we cannot be content that a 17 year old youngster, who did nothing wrong–absolutely nothing–will never go home to his family while George Zimmerman is free to go home to his family.”

Jeffries struck a similar tone. “Once again, the court system has failed to deliver justice in a racially-tinged matter that involves the killing of an innocent, unarmed African-American male,” he said in a statement. “The Justice Department must open an immediate investigation to determine if George Zimmerman can be charged with violating our nation’s civil rights laws in the cold-blooded killing of Trayvon Martin.”

Both men repeated those sentiments on Twitter, where they were joined by fellow Congressman Jerry Nadler.


Bloomberg’s Sneaky Fix For All Those Stop-and-Frisk Lawsuits

In the files of the federal court in Manhattan, a battle is being waged over a little known set of special court rules aimed at dealing with the massive number of civil rights lawsuits against the NYPD currently choking the system.

The controversy has come up in a range of cases involving New Yorkers who claim they were roughed up, stopped illegally, or falsely arrested. It came up in the case of Lynda Hinton, who suffered tendon damage during a trespassing arrest for walking across the street to visit her mother in a city housing project. It came up in the case of Marie Rahman, who was arrested outside a methadone clinic by cops allegedly looking to make their arrest quota; in the case of Frank Reyes, who was stopped by police on an East Harlem sidewalk and ended up with a broken nose and stitches; and in the case of Rosa Chiclana, a 27-year-old single mom arrested on a disorderly conduct charge that was dismissed seven months later.

It has been coming up a lot.

This week marks the beginning of Floyd v. City of New York, the big civil rights class action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop and frisk campaign. A highlight of the trial is expected to be an airing of the recordings that whistleblower cop Adrian Schoolcraft made in Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct. The tapes—first made public by the Voice in 2010—reveal police bosses ordering cops to stop citizens in order to make quotas, which are illegal under state law. The plaintiffs want the judge to appoint a monitor to oversee the NYPD, a radical shift in the power structure of New York City.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg insist that stop and frisk and quality of life arrests are critical to keeping crime down and they have largely ignored the civil liberties advocates who abhor the policy. But they are having a harder time ignoring one clear consequence of stop and frisk: New Yorkers are running to the courthouse in record numbers. Over the past five years, the number of lawsuits and claims filed against the NYPD have skyrocketed by 40 percent. Total NYPD settlements have risen from $92.3 million in 2007 to $185.6 million in 2011 for a total over the period of an astounding $654 million in payouts. Civil rights claims alone have cost the city $300 million, and the annual payout amount in those cases has risen in every year since 2008. The number of claims against the NYPD has also spiked–by a fairly unbelievable 55 percent, from 5,707 in 2007 to 8,882 in 2011. Last year, the Voice estimated that the city was being sued over stop and frisk at the rate of 40 cases per month.

“The vast increase in civil rights cases against the NYPD is hardly driven by greedy attorneys bringing frivolous lawsuits,” Chiclana’s lawyer Joel Berger wrote last month in a letter to the judge on the case. “Rather it is primarily the result of the NYPD’s stop and frisk policies, marijuana arrest policies, and trespass arrest policies in the housing projects. The victims of these policies have been filing a huge number of individual damage claims and lawsuits.”

Even billionaire Bloomberg must feel the loss of $654 million. The city announced recently that it will start fighting these suits more aggressively rather than settling them, which the NYPD has always hated. At the same time, though—and there was no announcement accompanying this move—the city has implemented a backdoor strategy to strip away as much leverage as possible from the complainants. Rather than seeing the payouts as a sign of a flawed policy, the mayor has apparently opted to rig the game.

Lawsuits are typically filed and then they go to a magistrate—or junior level—judge for initial hearings and settlement discussions. But in August, 2011, in an effort to address the swelling number of civil rights lawsuits, the judges in the Southern District in Manhattan came out with a special set of rules reserved only for civil rights cases.

This is where Bloomberg’s new strategy kicked in. Known benignly as “The Plan for Certain 1983 Case Against the City of New York,” these rules were pitched as a way to “streamline and speed up the judicial process” in NYPD lawsuits. (1983 refers to the statute number for the federal law governing violations of civil rights)

Under the normal rules, the magistrate judge orders broad “discovery”—the evidence on which legal cases are built, which both parties to a suit are obligated to share. Under 1983, as the regime is called, the parties exchange only limited discovery. The city is then given 80 days to file an answer to the complaint. The plaintiff, meanwhile, is obligated to turn over medical and prior arrest records. The parties then appear before a mediator, who is usually a corporate lawyer volunteering his time. If no settlement can be reached, the case essentially reverts to the normal rules, with an initial conference before a judge.


Muriel Goode-Trufant, the chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division for the city Law Department, says the program allows for a quick and efficient exchange of documents and reduces unnecessary proceedings. “It also encourages mediation and early settlement where appropriate,” she says. “Nothing in the plan deprives a plaintiff of his or her ability to fully litigate a case if desired.” She also contends the program came about as a result of “extensive, collaborative discussions among the Court, representatives of the plaintiffs’ bar, and the Law Department.”

While the rules may seem reasonable on paper, in practice they are designed to tilt the balance toward the city, plaintiff’s lawyers say. The limit on discovery—especially on the complete files of any prior complaints about or misconduct by an officer—means plaintiffs have to go into settlement negotiations half-blind. They are negotiating without a clear sense of their own position or even of what happened, and thus are making monetary demands without knowing all the facts.

What’s more, even as police are allowed to withhold information about prior disciplinary action, lawyers say the 1983 requirement that complainants turn over prior arrest records is not only irrelevant to the incident that led to the lawsuit, but also serves to taint the plaintiff before mediation even begins.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers aren’t happy. In letters to judges, a range of them raised their objections to the special rules. In May, civil rights lawyer Rose Weber described how a city attorney used the rules to refuse to provide key documents in one of her cases. The plan “does not facilitate settlements,” she wrote. “It simply aids and abets the city.”

At around the same time, lawyer Gabriel Harvis wrote, “The city has used the plan for the opposite of the plan’s intended purpose: to delay cases and avoid discovery.”

Steven Banks, the head of the Legal Aid Society, which has no stake in legal settlements, also objected to the 1983 rules last July. The plan “places pressure on plaintiffs counsel to make a settlement demand without having a realistic assessment of the case,” he wrote.

Another civil rights lawyer, James Meyerson, wrote in October, that he wasn’t aware of the new rules until after they were already in effect. “I do not see the program as being beneficial to anyone other than the city,” he wrote.

During the summer of last year, a committee of lawyers in the Eastern District, which covers Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, voted against allowing the special rules into those courts. The only member of the panel to vote in favor was the city’s representative.

A spokeswoman for the district court declined to comment on these complaints.

In a series of moves that has accelerated in recent months, lawyers have been trying to get cases removed from the plan. The city, meanwhile, has aggressively opposed those moves. In the Reyes case, for example, attorney Harvis complained that the city stubbornly refused to deviate from the plan in any way even though settlement mediation “would very likely be a waste of time.”

In Hinton, Reyes, and Rahman, judges refused to remove the cases from the plan. In Rahman, Judge Denise Cote called the rules, “an effort to assist plaintiffs … and the city to expend its resources appropriately,” and seemed exasperated by the plaintiff’s request to remove it.

But the Chiclana case had a different outcome. The young mother of two children had endured a roughing up, 9 hours in handcuffs, and a seven-month wait for her case to be dismissed after officers didn’t bother to show up for a hearing. On Feb. 12, Berger sued, calling the arrest, “a simple case of a woman, never convicted of any offense, who was arrested and imprisoned in handcuffs for nine hours on a fabricated charge of disorderly conduct.”

On Feb. 22, in his letter asking Judge Katherine Forrest to remove the Chiclana lawsuit from the 1983 plan, Berger outlined his objections: “The plan was adopted with very limited outreach, is extremely one-sided in favor of the city and has the effect of delaying cases until plaintiffs can be pressured into accepting extremely small settlements,” Berger writes. “It harms plaintiffs who are among the least powerful and most vulnerable.”

Within a day of receiving the letter, Judge Forrest signed a terse one-sentence order removing the case from the program.

On the very same day, Asst. Corporation Counsel Kate McMahon wrote to Forrest “vigorously” opposing the decision, and begging Forrest to reconsider. McMahon disputed Berger’s contention that the program was created without consultation. “It was precisely these types of straightforward cases which the Southern District contemplated when it developed the 1983 plan,” McMahon wrote. She went on to basically accuse Berger of being just another money grubbing lawyer: “A real possibility is that Mr. Berger objects to the plan insofar as it limits plaintiffs’ attorneys’ ability to generate additional fees through needless discovery and applications which can be later used to justify larger settlements.”


In his response, Berger suggested that “Lawyers take discovery to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, not merely to enhance attorneys’ fees.”

Forrest sided with Berger. But the fact that McMahon’s aggressive response came within hours starkly illustrates just how important the special rules are to the city.

And here, there’s a major contradiction in the Bloomberg message. Even as the city spends an extraordinary amount of effort fighting these cases, it does almost nothing to learn from them. The NYPD doesn’t keep track of officers who have cost the city money. Lawsuit records are not noted in officers’ personnel files. Neither Internal Affairs nor the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigate claims in lawsuits. Police officials only look at the handful of cases that result in settlements of $250,000 of more.

“The NYPD is one department that has been extremely resistant to even collecting information,” says Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA who has been studying how cities handle these types of lawsuits. “The Bloomberg administration has said that the mere fact of a settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing, but if the city is paying out $300 million, it seems cost effective to try to identify what the reasons are. If Bloomberg News was paying out that much, you bet they would look at it.”

Schwartz found that departments that analyze legal claims were better able to identify problem officers and troubling trends and address them. “Lo and behold when they do look at trends in claims, they learn new thing about their departments,” she says.

But for the city to undertake an effort like that would be tantamount to admitting defeat, to acknowledging that in fact there are profound problems with the stop and frisk campaign, with the program of low level arrests, and with the level of accountability in the NYPD. It would take Bloomberg admitting that he was wrong.


Flood Zone, NYC

While the Bloomberg administration has gotten kudos (so far) for the city’s emergency response to the storm, the mayor has an elephant in the room: his administration’s encouragement of flood-zone development in the face of repeated warnings going back at least a decade.

Indeed, New Yorkers had to be impressed with the efforts of the overwhelmed emergency agencies in trying to deal with one crisis after another. But he has sidestepped questions about his administration green-lighting massive construction in the very danger zones crippled by Hurricane Sandy, despite calls for tighter regulation of such development.

The administration has pushed development by granting major incentives to builders in Red Hook and Coney Island, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, western Queens, on the Rockaways, and along Manhattan’s West Side. Flooding and damage were reported in all those places.

On Monday, Bloomberg seemed to dismiss the question, saying: “People like to live in low-lying areas on the beach. It’s attractive. People pay more, generally, to be closer to the water.” On Tuesday, he modified this only slightly, saying he spoke with aides, and “what’s clear is that the climate is changing, and each of these storms, we have to see if you can’t learn to deal with them better.” His answer then wandered off to topics like generators in basements. “We’ve really got to start focusing on planning down the road.”

From there, he once again lauded the storm response: “We had a good plan, good communications; we knew how to respond.”

In January 2011, a report from the state’s Sea Level Rise Task Force projected that the water level in New York Harbor will rise two to five inches by 2025. The group proposed additional rules limiting building in flood zones, protecting wetlands and other natural storm barriers, and moving infrastructure to safer areas.

But Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for long-term planning at the time, Adam Freed, objected to the proposal because it would stifle development and add another layer of state regulation. “If implemented, the regulatory changes would create unnecessary additional oversight for local land-use decisions and could add significant costs and time to projects in coastal areas,” he wrote. “[They] could have an adverse effect on property investment into the New York City—and thus the New York State—economy.”

In April 2012, Freed seemed to soften his stance in remarks to the U.S. Senate but still said, “While we all share the objective of protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, federal agencies must recognize the need for regulatory flexibility in urban areas like New York City, where we do not have room to retreat from the shoreline in response to rising sea levels.”

In some instances, the city has required additional safeguards in development. The Willets Point development is said to be being built at a higher level to avoid damage from flooding. Floodgates were built into a sewage plant on Tallman Island. Generators and other electrical gear can be sited on roofs rather than in basements.

And, in the months preceding Hurricane Sandy, the city did several things, none of which were short-term in nature. The City Council voted to assemble a panel of climate experts to plan for rising sea levels, and there have been renewed discussions about some kind of movable barrier system.

But the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, his long-term list of proposals for the future of the city released in 2007, included encouragement of development in the flood zones.

A deputy mayor at the time disputed the sea-level-rise projections and said it would be about 1 percent of the predicted five-inch rise—or five tenths of an inch, according to a 2007 article by former Voice staff writer Wayne Barrett.

Barrett pointed out in the piece, which focused on PlaNYC and warned of the future dangers in coastal development, that the Army Corps of Engineers said New York was among the most vulnerable cities to storm surges. When Barrett, as he wrote, tried to get the mayor’s office to respond to whether storm barriers should be built, he couldn’t get an answer. Barrett also noted that in 2006, Bloomberg insisted that “NYC is not a high-risk area for hurricanes.”

Way back in 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicted that a quarter of the structures 500 feet from the coast will be eventually destroyed by the rising sea level.

A major study called “Climate Change and a Global City” way back in 2001 contained the prediction of a five-inch rise in sea level.

“The key threat of sea-level rise is its effect on storm surges,” the report said. “Heightened storm surges associated with future hurricanes and nor’easters will cause the most significant damage. . . . Many of the region’s most significant infrastructure facilities will be at increased risk to damage resulting from augmented storm surges.”

That was 11 years ago, and today, as scenes of wreckage fill our living rooms, it seems almost shockingly prescient.


Christine Quinn, Best Bud

The Bloomberg administration’s handling of the horrific devastation of Hurricane Sandy has an interesting political element to it that most New Yorkers might not have registered.

There, for the TV cameras, alongside Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, was, Zelig-like, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, looking dour and concerned. And there, touring the fire devastation and giving TV news interviews in the Breezy Point section of Queens, alongside a majordomo of state politics, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, was Speaker Christine Quinn. And there chatting in studio with two NBC news anchors, was, once again, Christine Quinn. And again, next to Bloomberg on Tuesday afternoon, there was Quinn.

Although the Democrat has legislative authority over the council, Quinn has no power over the emergency agencies, nor over any of the mayoral agencies, nor over Con-Edison, the National Guard, nor emergency powers relevant to a major crisis like a hurricane. Although she’s influential inside the marble corridors of City Hall, she’s not so well-known outside of them.

“She’s got no executive power,” a City Hall observer says. “She can introduce legislation. On the hurricane, she’s just backing the mayor on everything when she’s supposed to be the person on the other side of City Hall questioning what he does.”

So why was she there in the aftermath of the hurricane? It looked a little bit from here like Bloomberg and Schumer (whose wife, Iris Weinshall, was a transportation commissioner under Bloomberg) were giving Quinn a cut of the spotlight to help raise her profile in advance of her mayoral run next year.

You have to wonder whether her possible opponents, including former comptroller Bill Thompson, Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, were grinding their teeth at her presence in the Blue Room. In other words, while Bloomberg can’t blatantly campaign for Quinn now, he can certainly give her a platform. Was that all it was about?

“I think this is totally a political ploy,” says a former city official. “He’s not making endorsements, but he’s positioning her very well. Everyone wants to see the press conferences, and she is now a very visible face.”

The mayor’s office and the Speaker’s office did not respond with comment by press time.

Those who followed the tenure of Mayor Rudy Giuliani recall that Speaker Peter Vallone Senior didn’t get such invitations until late in Rudy’s mayoralty, and most of that took place after the 9/11 attacks. And Comptroller Thompson, who served from 2002 to 2010, got those invitations very, very sparingly from Bloomberg.

As for Quinn, over the years, Mayor Bloomberg has invited her to stand behind him at least once a month. Of course, Quinn did a major favor in turn for Bloomberg by wrangling just enough Council votes to give the mayor a third term. She backed Bloomberg’s claim that the declining economy made a third term necessary, but few outside of City Hall bought that, just as they didn’t buy Giuliani’s unsuccessful claim that 9/11 made a third term necessary for him.

Her oddest presence was when she appeared in August at the side of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at the midtown crime scene, where a crazed gunman murdered a former co-worker and was then shot fatally by police, who also injured nine civilians. Although the incident took place in her district, one wonders whether Kelly thought it was a good idea for her to be present.