New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Gothamist Politics As Usual: City Council Democrats Approve Elections Commissioners by Brigid Bergin

Politics As Usual: City Council Democrats Approve Elections Commissioners

The Democratic Caucus of the New York City Council, composed of all but three members of the 51-member body, approved on Thursday the appointment of Rodney L. Pepe-Souvenir as the new Brooklyn Democratic Commissioner to the New York City Board of Elections. 

While all nominees must get approval from the Council, Thursday’s appointment once again highlighted the political underpinnings of the notoriously problem-plagued agency responsible for overseeing all elections in New York City. As outlined in state Election Law, the Board of Elections has 10 commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican from each borough, nominated by the county’s party boss.

Expertise in election law or the administration of voting is not required.

Pepe-Souvenir, an attorney from Brooklyn, works as the Title IX Coordinator for CUNY’s Central Office and serves as president of the Haitian American Lawyers Association. Nominated by the current Brooklyn Democratic Leader, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, Pepe-Souvenir garnered 42 votes. Only City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer opposed the appointment, as a matter of principle. 

“I vote no because political machines should have no place in the Board of Elections process,” Van Bramer said. He stressed his vote was not a reflection on the qualifications of the candidate but rather a statement about what he called a “broken process.”

When Pepe-Souvenir’s nomination came before the body for the first time, back in July, her approval was stymied by members, led by Brooklyn City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who wanted more time to vet the candidate. 

Pepe-Souvenir has since met with the Council’s entire Democratic delegation. But she’s never answered questions publicly nor has she appeared at a public hearing. There was no debate at Thursday’s meeting about her qualifications or her positions on any election legislation. 

Brooklyn City Councilmember Justin Brannan, who is vying to be the next City Council Speaker, made a motion to approve her nomination, which was seconded by Brooklyn Council members Robert Cornegy and Mathiew Eugene.

Only two members besides Van Bramer bothered to explain their votes. Manhattan City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who has long-championed reform at the Board of Elections and is running for Manhattan Borough President, said his conversation with Pepe-Souvenir left him satisfied that she would work to overcome long lines, broken machines and would work to expand early and online voting. 

Reynoso, who is running for Brooklyn Borough President next year and took heat for delaying Pepe-Souvenir’s initial nomination, also voted in favor of her appointment. While he pointed to the need for state law reform to overhaul the Board, he also said he hoped the Council would conduct a more rigorous process on its own. 

“I hope moving forward we continue this process, or a more complex process that allows us to vet these candidates so we don’t have what we’ve seen in Brooklyn, which is not only the purging of hundreds of thousands of voters in the registration roll but it’s also the mismanagement of absentee ballots in arguably the most important election of our time,” said Reynoso.

Brooklyn Democratic Leader Bichotte issued her own statement following Pepe-Souvier’s approval by the Council. “As recent events showed us, it is more important than ever that we oversee the selection and award of contracts to vendors. I believe Pepe-Souvenir will help vet that process.”

The Council also approved the reappointment of Jose Araujo, the Democratic Commissioner from Queens. Araujo was fined $10,000 by the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board in 2014 for securing his wife a job at the Board so they could receive health insurance. 

Commissioners receive up to $30,000 a year, but do not get benefits.

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