As the 2013 petitioning period closed and ballots began to take concrete form, we caught up with City Council District 5 candidate Ben Kallos as he hosted a screening of the anti-fracking documentary film “Gasland II” at his newly opened campaign headquarters on East 86th Street. At the event, Kallos eagerly touted his campaign as distinctly progressive and community-oriented, adamantly pointing out that he was merely host and neighbor for the day – all the attendees and equipment had been provided by MoveOn.org.
Community participation and transparency are a recurring theme for Kallos, who describes his candidacy and positions using “we” and “us” by default. In between shuffling chairs and setting up projection screens, we sat down and talked about everything from hydrofracking to waste management and the efficacy of the recently passed bills of the Community Safety Act.
The once-understated District 5 race has heated up in recent weeks, with the release of allegations of sexual harassment against current Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who had been considered a strong favorite in the primary against Kallos and Community Board member Ed Hartzog. In the wake of the new allegations, the National Organization of Women – New York City (NOW-NYC) endorsed Kallos, citing a “strong platform for women – from funding sexual health programs to establishing health coordinators in schools to protect young girls – Kallos makes the women and girls of this city a priority.”
Several prominent city elected officials have rescinded endorsements for Kellner, including Council Member Mark Weprin, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and current District 5 Council Member Jessica Lappin. The latest allegations will be particularly frustrating for a Kellner team that had already been facing criticism concerning the Assembly Member’s relationship with taxi lobbies and legislation passed in Albany on the “taxi of tomorrow”.
We spoke with Kallos before the harassment allegations broke, however the self-defined “Reform Democrat” did not hesitate to question Kellner’s leadership and ethics even prior to the news.
Decide NYC (DNYC): Today you are hosting a screening of the documentary on hydrofracking, Gasland II. How does hydrofracking directly affect District 5 – The Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island?
Kallos: It affects all of New York City. One of the big themes of our campaign is understanding that we’re all in this together as a city, and what it means for District 5 is drinking water. If we allow hydrofracking we’re looking at an entire district, an entire city where it will not be safe to drink the cleanest water in the world and people will have to buy bottled water, which will increase recycling, increase waste, increase landfill, increase the amount of waste that gets into the ocean. I don’t think it’s worth it.
DNYC: So how can the council be proactive in the issue, especially considering that Albany controls a lot of the pertinent regulation?
Kallos: I think that ultimately we need more local control for our city. We have several million people, and Albany politicians who are taking money from other interests shouldn’t be in charge of our drinking water, shouldn’t be in charge of our housing.
DNYC: The planned reconstruction of the Marine Transfer Station on the Upper East Side has been a source of a lot of controversy. Where do you stand on the plant’s reconstruction and the City and Albany’s respective waste management plans?
Kallos: What has been disappointing is that this waste management plan was passed in ’05, and Asphalt Green has been dealing with the construction of the Marine Transfer Station there for 7 years. And in those years, the Assembly Member [Kellner] did nothing. There’s been no results, and in fact, if we look at his campaign finance filings, we’re seeing that the sanitation union that apparently wants it built is supporting him. Which gives me great pause.
The other part is that we try to have a broader focus–we care about the East Side, we care about Roosevelt Island. But we have to think broader as a city. So our position is that there shouldn’t be a Marine Transfer Station in any residential neighborhood. The current argument has been NIMBY–not in my backyard–and that’s not an argument that anyone should be making. The arguments to make are, does a marine transfer station belong in a residential neighborhood? The answer is no. It is the only marine transfer station that is in a residential neighborhood. The only reason they can go in is because it’s grandfathered in, from when this wasn’t a residential neighborhood.
So what that means is that we need to rethink how we do our zoning, and if we are zoning and removing industrial neighborhoods and putting in residential, noxious usage should either be taken care of, or planned with an alternate location. When we are looking at the solid waste management plan, we have to look at whether or not putting that many tons of garbage in landfill is acceptable in 2013.
Is it a good idea to landfill New York City’s waste? No. New York City is at 15% recycling, and we should not be. San Francisco is at 75% recycling, which is where the city should be heading. What I would prefer to do, once I get into the council, is redo the solid waste management plan something that’s eight years old that was obsolete the day it was passed.
Then we have to figure out what other kinds of waste we have. I support Mayor Bloomberg and his composting initiative, I would really love to see the success of Union Square expanded and I know that on the Upper East Side I know that Upper Green Side allows people to bring compost, so the more that we can do to support composting, the more that we can do to support recycling, means maybe we don’t need the Marine Transfer Station to put trash in landfills.
DNYC: Roosevelt Island was recently the subject of $100 million dollar grant to Cornell for a large tech campus. Is that a welcome development for the island, and should the city be pursuing these kind of investments as a policy on the whole?
Kallos: We are the only campaign for city council to take a position on this.
We do support Cornell-New York City Tech, however, any time there is new development it must support local infrastructure. Roosevelt Island is managed by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), and they don’t receive the same city dollars as any other neighborhood, and unfortunately Cornell New York City Tech won’t be paying into those.
For Cornell New York City Tech to be sustainable it must support its local infrastructure. So that means supporting their roads, supporting the sanitation.
The other piece is making sure that they worked with us to get ferry service to the island, so that we have improved transportation infrastructure.
We gave testimony to the city planning commission and the City Council. Believe it or not Cornell actually agreed to most of our testimony. We worked with the Roosevelt Island residents association and the Roosevelt Island community coalition in order to craft their testimony to make sure it was representative of the community and to win those concessions. And everything we did was open, in public, and transparent. We submitted our testimony to everyone to review before we gave it to make sure we were giving something that did represent the community. We think that’s the model for how people should be representing their communities.
DNYC: So is this what you mean when you describe yourself as a Reform Democrat?
Kallos: Yes, we take transparency seriously. All of our positions are out there–we have over 127 solutions on our website. Not ideas, not positions, actually solutions and 27 of them came from the community. Which means that this isn’t just my campaign and this isn’t just the old politics of I’m going to tell you what you should think. It’s we’re going to have a conversation. And maybe you’re going to suggest a great solution maybe not, but everyone’s going to see why, and we’re going to vote on it, and we’re going to listen and people will actually have an opportunity to engage with us around solutions, and people are already copying it.
We’re looking for leaders and that’s what the city council needs because I’m going to do my best to lead, but if I see somebody else doing something else more progressive than me, you better believe I’m going to call them and say I really like what you’re doing, I’d like to do the same. And you will see a much more progressive council.
DNYC: Do you have plans to join the council’s progressive caucus?
Kallos: I’m actually a brother of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity–part of fraternity life is something called rush. And so when people ask me my feelings on the progressive caucus I say I’m actively rushing the Progressive Caucus. I’ve made it very clear, that I would like to join it. I would like to play a strong role.
I don’t think that there is a stronger candidate for the Progressive Caucus, I don’t think there is a stronger city council candidate who is doing more this year to help.
DNYC: Your stance on Participatory Budgeting?
Kallos: We’re the only candidate or campaign on the Upper East Side to come out in favor of Participatory Budgeting. I’ve seen Participatory Budgeting as something that allows member items to remain while removing the corruption. One of the most disappointing things to me was finding out that Council Member Lappin was receiving a lot of contributions from organizations that were receiving member items. And whether or not she was actually asking them to give after she gave member items or there was quid pro quo, there’s an appearance of impropriety. So I don’t think that should be happening anymore and I think that Participatory Budgeting does that.
DNYC: The City Council recently passed two key pieces of the Community Safety Act, one expanding prohibitions expanding police profiling and another establishing an inspector general over NYPD. What’s your take on both and would you have voted for either?
Kallos: We’re against stop and frisk. We’re the only candidate in the race who has taken a position on it. When we learned that more minorities are stopped in our district than live here we were the only ones to express alarm and outrage and concern. We don’t think it’s a sustainable model for a residential neighborhood to have its police stopping residents and friends and guests and neighbors and as a business person I don’t think its a sustainable business model to have our patrons stopped and frisked.
So I think my position is: yes, any solution we can come up with to stop stop and frisk and to end racial profiling is a good thing. Whether or not inspector general is the best solution when there are already so many others is a concern for me. I haven’t been elected so I haven’t had a chance to do it so it’s hard for me to say how I would have voted in that case.
So we’re not about to create legislation for legislation’s sake so we can say we did something, it’s about getting to to the root of what’s wrong.
DNYC: Is there anything you would identify as the number one pressing issue for your District?
Kallos: One issue that we didn’t cover is the Second Avenue subway. When I was Chief of Staff to Assemblymember Bing, I wrote the Second Avenue subway grant legislation, I was happy to help him in drafting it. We created grants and it was passed in the Assembly and the Senate. Unfortunately it was vetoed by a fiscally conservative governor, but I’m doing anything I can to support small business as a small business person and residents along the Second Avenue subway construction, and that is one of the larger issues in our district. The ground literally shakes multiple times a day as they are doing blasting.
Anything I can do to create transparency would be amazing.