New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Gotham Gazette

Gotham Gazette Legislation Aims to Improve Efficiency and Access at Election Poll Sites by Samar Khurshid

Legislation Aims to Improve Efficiency and Access at Election Poll Sites

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, is introducing legislation to create a temporary poll-site task force that would examine measures to improve access to poll sites and to make them more efficient. The task force would be charged with studying the functioning of poll sites in the 2020 elections, the cost of running them, and the possible effects on the health of voters, and would recommend locations and the number of sites for future elections. 

“I hate task force bills and I think that they're mostly useless, but this is the one time I think it's the only path forward,” Kallos said in a phone interview, reluctantly acknowledging that the Board of Elections is not really under the jurisdiction of city law despite the fact that it is funded in large part through the city budget.

Gotham Gazette A Universal Internet Guarantee to Bridge the Digital Divide for Every New Yorker by Ben Kallos and Eric Adams

A Universal Internet Guarantee to Bridge the Digital Divide for Every New Yorker

A plan for internet access at school and home (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus pandemic has shown all of us the importance of a reliable high-speed home internet connection, whether for remote learning and working from home or for gathering virtually with loved ones. There is a common cliché that “the virus doesn’t discriminate,” but the reality is that coronavirus disproportionately harms low-income communities of color impacted by systemic racism in government and the private sector.

With many households in these communities lacking high-speed internet, the shift to social distancing has been particularly challenging. As we prepare for a second wave, or for the next virus, we must rebuild our society with the guarantee of universal broadband—finally treating the internet as a utility like phone service or electricity. We must use all of New York City’s local regulatory power to deliver on the promise of universal broadband by establishing a Universal Internet Guarantee.

Mayor de Blasio recently took a step in the right direction when he announced $157 million in funding to expand broadband internet access to 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 public housing residents. But New York City’s public housing authority (NYCHA) has 173,762 public housing units, home to 381,159 authorized residents, and this plan could still leave half without internet. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers do not have broadband, and this plan would leave nearly 1 million of them on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.’

To deliver truly universal broadband, we need several fixes at once. We could start with rezoning to require affordable Mandatory Inclusionary Internet, just like we required affordable housing with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. We could create incentives for 5G providers to offer affordable access. We can require cable providers to expand affordable internet offerings we already won to every single low-income New Yorker. And if the providers won’t do it, we can take over their networks and do it ourselves by establishing a municipal broadband network.

We can upgrade existing infrastructure by speeding along the conversion of old payphones into free internet kiosks and add WiFi to bus stops. We can even open up the city government’s wireless network to the public.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of giving every public school student who needs one a laptop and affordable broadband in the home to eliminate the ‘homework gap’ (that became a ‘schoolwork gap’ during the pandemic) and give a whole new generation a real chance at equity. Where all else fails, for those we still haven’t reached in low-income communities of color, we must invest the millions promised by the mayor in businesses owned and operated by women and people of color to spur innovation and connect every last New Yorker.

In partnership together, with an eye toward each of our roles in the city’s franchising, we have authored a report that focuses on some of the most important aspects of the digital divide and proposed solutions to help close it and bring us closer to the equitable New York City we need to move toward immediately.

Read the full report here.

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Eric Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President and has a vote on internet franchises through the FCRC. Ben Kallos is a New York City Council Member with a vote on internet franchise authorizations in the City Council. On Twitter @BKBoroHall & @BenKallos.

Gotham Gazette Public Matching Funds, A Crucial Campaign Lifeline, Are On The Way by Martin Rather

Public Matching Funds, A Crucial Campaign Lifeline, Are On The Way

The city’s matching funds program has already been proven to work. In the 2019 Public Advocate special election, small-dollar contributions went from about 25% of all funds raised to more than 66%, according to data from City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan. That race drew 17 candidates, a harbinger of what was to come for 2021. New York City’s matching funds program means more candidates, better campaigns, and greater choices for voters at the ballot box.

Gotham Gazette City Says Medical Supply Stockpile Nearly Complete; Healthcare Workers Wonder If It'll Be Enough by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

City Says Medical Supply Stockpile Nearly Complete; Healthcare Workers Wonder If It'll Be Enough

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Council’s contracts committee, said he has been seeking information on the peak PPE burn rate and the formula behind the city's stockpile figures without success, most recently at an oversight hearing in October. The mayor's office did not respond to a separate Gotham Gazette inquiry for the same information.

"The administration still hasn't shared how they came to this number and whether or not these numbers are accurate," Kallos said in a phone interview.

"We do know from common sense, common knowledge, anecdotes, and testimony at the hearing, that the numbers of PPE that we need are deflated because of people being instructed or choosing to recycle PPE that they shouldn't," he said, adding, "I am incredibly fearful that this 90-day stockpile is not the right number."

Gotham Gazette In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014 by Samar Khurshid

In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014

“This administration is littered with lost opportunities to bridge the digital divide,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos in a phone interview last month. Kallos’ main gripe with the administration is that it hasn’t taken advantage of its power to approve franchise agreements with internet service providers. For instance, he pointed out, when the city and state approved the merger between Spectrum and Time Warner in 2016, he said the de Blasio administration should have insisted that the company provide free or low-cost internet to all public housing buildings in lieu of the nearly $150 million in franchise fees that the company pays every year. “At the time, we didn't need $150 million and I would still argue today that we still don't need that money. We can use that money in kind to get more low-income New Yorkers internet,” said Kallos, who chairs the Council’s contracts committee.

Gotham Gazette Bills Would Further Restrict Coordination Between City Candidates and Independent Expenditure Campaigns by Samar Khurshid

Bills Would Further Restrict Coordination Between City Candidates and Independent Expenditure Campaigns

As the city heads into the 2021 municipal elections that are already drawing hundreds of candidates and will see many millions of dollars in campaign spending, a City Council member wants to preempt violations of the law on independent expenditures by increasing penalties. 

Council Member Ben Kallos, a Democrat from the Upper East Side who is running for Manhattan borough president in the 2021 election cycle where all of city government is on the ballot, will introduce two bills on Thursday to penalize candidates who coordinate with independent expenditure campaigns by reducing the candidates’ spending limits and by directly fining independent spenders who try to circumvent the rules.

Under Kallos’ proposals, there would be new, more closely defined forms of coordination between a candidate campaign and an independent spender, and fines for violations extended to agents of an independent expenditure campaign.

Gotham Gazette New York City Mandated an Absentee Ballot Tracking System; The Board of Elections Never Implemented It by Samar Khurshid

New York City Mandated an Absentee Ballot Tracking System; The Board of Elections Never Implemented It

Ahead of the primary, voters complained for weeks that they hadn’t either received an absentee ballot application or the ballot itself after mailing the application to the BOE. Some even received the ballot after the primary election was over, while untold others may have their attempts at voting invalidated for various reasons.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said these issues could have been avoided. He sponsored the 2016 law that required the city Board of Elections to create an online portal that would allow voters to track their absentee ballot application and their ballot, along with giving them access to their registration status, voting history, and other election-related resources. The city BOE never created the portal.

“The biggest impediment to free and fair elections and democracy in the City of New York is the Board of Elections, and it really shouldn’t be that way,” Kallos said in an interview. “They only had one job and all they had to do was send people their absentee ballots and they couldn't even get that right. And because of the Board of Elections, tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters were disenfranchised.”

Gotham Gazette Adams, Kallos Introduce Bill to Mandate Nutrition Standards for Food Provided by the City by Katie Kirker

Adams, Kallos Introduce Bill to Mandate Nutrition Standards for Food Provided by the City

“But what happens for those who don't have a choice, those relying on our ‘grab & go’ meals or home delivered meals from our city and when they don't even have a choice,” Kallos said. “Candy and potato chips and Bugles and things like that. That is a sometimes treat. That is not something that is part of a core diet and we need to make sure that for those who don't have a choice in the matter or literally relying on the city for their food, that we are providing them with healthy options so that if they eat that diet, they will not only be healthy but lose weight.”

Even before the pandemic and its fallout, the city was home to more than 1 million food insecure individuals, while hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs since mid-March, drastically increasing the need for emergency food. New York City is home to over 1.1 million seniors, according to a 2017 report by the City Comptroller, many more of whom are homebound due to social distancing restrictions and senior center closures, increasing the need for meal delivery and other food programs. As more New Yorkers rely on meals provided by the city, nutrition becomes more important.

Gotham Gazette City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing by Samar Khurshid

City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing

With the city facing a severe budget crunch because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget proposal released last month cut $6 billion in planned spending, tapped $4 billion from reserves and delayed major capital investments to future years when another mayor will be in office. On Wednesday, about eight weeks before a deal must be reached between the two sides, the City Council held a virtual hearing on the mayor’s spending plan. Council members questioned de Blasio administration budget officials on the mayor’s decisions, why he chose to prioritize certain city agencies and programs over others, and whether they have any contingencies now that the city’s reserves have been all but depleted and tax revenue projections continue to slide. 

The mayor’s $89.3 billion executive budget proposal was crafted with much uncertainty. The city has received far less than it has asked for in federal stimulus funds. The state shifted as much as $800 million in costs onto the city. Cash flows have been interrupted as the annual tax deadline was postponed. It could be months before the economy can be rebooted, with no certainty around what that reboot will look like given the contraction taking place. And the city continues its daily struggle against the coronavirus, with the administration spending $950 million by April 21 on its pandemic response, according to the mayor's office, with those costs only increasing by the day. 

Gotham Gazette Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus by Ben Kallos Jarret Berg

Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus

As the American people hunker down under a patchwork of evolving emergency orders and health directives, our communities are grappling with extraordinary circumstances disrupting and reorienting our lives and the economy. To flatten the curve of community spread during the increasingly deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Cuomo has placed New York on PAUSE; Health officials have issued stay-at-home and social distancing directives; schools, playgrounds, and non-essential facilities are closed. Further restrictions may be imposed. The duration uncertain.

But when it comes to the fate of civil rights during states of emergency, historically the paradigm is less uncertain—there is an irresistible tendency across the globe for authorities to suspend the normal order in the name of imminent, amorphous threats of unknown duration, leading to the incremental curtailment of freedoms that we take for granted (like unfettered travel, transportation, assembly, and enterprise to name a few). The new normal makes prioritization of due process seem quaint, but it is even more critical when the exigencies of the moment impose security measures that inadvertently raise old voter-access hurdles to new, perhaps insurmountable heights.

In this case we can dispense with skepticism over the emergency itself. The pandemic is most certainly real. But already, COVID-19 has scrambled our democratic process. The Democratic National Committee has postponed its convention as 15 states are postponing 2020 primaries and some are adjusting voting policies so residents aren’t forced to choose between safety and casting a ballot. That’s the goal.