Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

New York News Network “Conversations” Interview MBPO Gale Brewer

Maurice Pinzon: What are your major accomplishments as Borough President. What are you going to do for a “second act” in the New York City Council?

Gale Brewer: Number one, I hope that we’ve been a very accessible borough presidency in the following ways. It’s not – you know the board president has four charter-mandated, people don’t know that, responsibilities. Number one is to be part of the uniform land use review procedure, which is the ULRUP, basically land use and zoning. And we’ve done almost 200 ULURPs including some very major rezoning. So that’s a big accomplishment that I think will help us in the city council. The land use, as you know, is the meat and potatoes – not the best analogy – of New York City. The second we had to appoint every single year, about 1,000 people, including community boards, solid waste advisory boards, business board, hospital boards, school boards, all of these individuals were trained in everything from land use, and budgeting to technology, parliamentary procedure and so on. And so that has been a good, I think, process that I could also hopefully, use in the city council because there are a lot of appointments. The third issue is allocating funding, not different from the city council or the mayor. And then the fourth is how do we deal with legislation – do legislation – with a council member.

But in terms of what we have accomplished, we also took the office that had been located in the Harlem State Office building – up high – and moved it to a storefront on 125th Street, between Amsterdam and Morningside. That’s been a big deal. The fact that people can walk in get help learn what’s going on in the community was a big plus for Harlem. We’re the only Harlem storefront. Everybody else is in the state office building. So that to me was an example. We also have worked to improve, picking up on what Scott Stringer had done as borough president to really streamline make sure that the community board members represent their districts demographically, racially, men, women and professions. So that’s been a huge, I think improvement to the community board process. It’s never easy because there are so many issues that they have to deal with.

And then, finally, in terms of accomplishment. We have a very diverse staff. We have taken on, I think the word is convening, right now we’re convening a group on drug treatment, improving the services of Washington Square Park. Every Tuesday, for months, we’ve been meeting virtually, with people talking about vaccine improvements in Manhattan. We know that was a huge issue previously. And now we’re talking about how Manhattan can recover. Coming back out of this god awful pandemic. So the whole convening, we convened discussions on the Garment Center, South Street Seaport, you know, all of the rezonings on East Midtown. I don’t know, we’ve had maybe I would say 50 or 60, substantive discussions, long term construction safety we did for a year and a half.

So all of that, I think, has been a plus in terms of what is the role of the borough president? Because it is not clear. You know what to do as a council member, you know what you do as comptroller, you know what to do as mayor. But it’s what you make of the borough presidency. So I would say to answer your question, we’re very proud of the work we’ve done in terms of the charter mandates, which is, you know, going beyond in terms of appointment doing all of these, I think more ULURPs than perhaps in the entire rest of the city combined. And then obviously introducing about 20 bills in the city council with other members, and certainly allocating funding, which is not different than in the past.

But then, in addition to all of that, this huge convening of hundreds of hundreds of different topics for the borough of Manhattan, being the advocate, hopefully. And then also moving the office where constituents are served out of the tall office building to the streets. And that has been, you know, we’ve also had meetings in there with, for instance, the African immigrant Task Force, the amazing women who do braiding and the challenges that they have, and just, you know, been like the party scene for the 125th Street BID at holiday time. You know because we have a large conference room there.

So those are some of the most obvious, you know, you have you have all of the individual ways that we have, I think, done analysis, like we did all of the curb cuts, we did a survey of them and found that there were a lot of broken ones that got them fixed because of the press. We just did something similar recently with the cooling centers. That the mayor said, “Oh, we have all these cooling centers.” Well, it turns out that the city has not as many cooling centers in Manhattan as they had thought and then signage is bad. We’re doing the study of the ADA accessibility for the election, polling sites, we try to look at what’s current. And then with our as you know, many interns during 2019, we have 139, summer interns, and we can’t quite have as many this year, but we try to work with them on a very substantive basis also. So those are some of the things we’ve accomplished. We hope to, you know, put it all into a document for the next borough president, so they have something to work with.

Maurice Pinzon: Do we need Borough Presidents?

Gale Brewer: It’s a very good question. And I have to say, being Borough President, I think is needed more than ever. And let me be specific. I mean, as council member, I went actually more around the boroughs, you know, you would visit the – I’m making this up – the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of a bill that might come up about economic development. Or I might go to the Bronx because it was a great youth program. And there was a hearing, blah, blah, blah. So I actually went around the boroughs more than as Manhattan Borough President. As Manhattan Borough President, I can see the huge difference between the boroughs, and I have great relationship with the other borough presidents. Over time, we’ve had lunch quite often and so on.

But you need a voice for your borough. And I can be specific. I talked a little bit more than I would’ve wanted to…and the City Council people don’t do it. Like, for whatever reason, there isn’t a strong Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, the delegations don’t work like that. So the Borough President, not only do we mandately – if that’s English – have the borough board every month, that’s by charter, so you have to have all the borough all the committee and chairs of the community boards, and then supposedly the council members, but they don’t always show up – you know, they’re busy – unless there is a vote. So what is the role the borough president? Bringing the different stakeholders for the borough together is such an important role. I would not have known that it was so important. I mean, there are issues that are just related to Manhattan. Right now we’re trying to deal with the empty office space – big article in The New York Times today. No other borough has that. Manhattan also has Broadway. No other borough has that. So we did…we work a lot with all the arts groups in a different way. I mentioned the garment center. The mayor, when I became Borough President, wanted to send the Garment Center to Brooklyn. You can imagine how I felt about that. And of course, during the pandemic – thank goodness we had it for the gowns and the masks – that had to be purchased and made and they could be done here.

You do need. And you know Brooklyn has its needs. Queens has its needs. You do need a voice for the borough, particularly when there is a Borough President I’ll be honest with you – I’m sorry – a mayor from another borough. I mean, Mayor de Blasio loves Brooklyn. He doesn’t always love Manhattan. So he has to be told that this is what is going on in Manhattan. And this is what Manhattan needs. It’s very, very different. And so is the Bronx, and so is Staten Island. So I actually think that there’s more need than ever to bring together the stakeholders from the borough. And there isn’t any other entity that will do it. Because if you’re a council member, you know, you don’t have that authority. Like, Okay, I’m representing the Lower East Side as an example. I can’t tell all the other parts of the borough to listen to me. Well, I would say that it’s very, very clear now. If the Mayor de Blasio could have been smarter, but he never – I think he met with us once. I don’t even remember that. That’s it in eight years. If he was if he was a little bit more enlightened, I think he would have met with us on a regular basis, you know, I don’t know four times a year or something quarterly, to say, what are the issues? He never did.

Each Borough President, at least the ones now and I think probably in the future, really know their boroughs really know their boroughs. I really know Manhattan. Borough President Diaz really knows the Bronx, etc. And there are issues that could have been resolved more readily with that kind of discussion. I think the borough presidents maybe some of their powers could change in some ways. But generally, they are, even though mostly advisory, they are a great spokespersons for the interests of their borough.

Maurice Pinzon: You’ll have a much smaller staff in the Council. Have you thought about whether you want to pursue a leadership position or specific committees?

Well, a couple of things. First of all, I don’t need to tell you, but this city needs a whole lot of not just me, but input generally to try to come back differently. You know, if you’re talking about people getting jobs, people being healthy, all the issues of the schools, which I actually think is our biggest challenge, in many ways, because a lot of these young people have not been in school for a year. And all the questions of how do you, you know, figure out the affordable housing. There’s so many issues, it’s not completely dissimilar, although it is on some other way.

We obviously, I came in on 9/11, right after 9/11, as you know, the election for the time that I ran in 2001, happened to be on September 11th 2001. So we actually canceled that election, obviously. Held it a couple of weeks later. That was a challenge, was very different than the one we’re facing now, because then we lost, oh goodness, over 3000 people. But this time we lost 33,000 people in terms of people dying in the borough. Not just the borough of Manhattan, but the whole city, 33,000 people died as a result of this awful pandemic. And I know friends, and I’m sure you do, too. It’s horrible. So the issue is, how do you come back in a way that is respectful of those who have passed, but come back differently that involving in a positive way more New Yorkers?

Now, thank goodness for Mr. Biden, and Ms. Harris. I mean, it’s made an immense difference to the budget, but it also just gives some light at the end of the tunnel, but you don’t know how long that light is gonna last, depending on what happens with the congressional election. But you have to, you know, my opinion to come back. And why I think, a smaller staff, yes, but don’t forget, in the city council, you have a very large four or five hundred Speaker staff. So whether you’re a council member, or a Speaker, but I’m fine being a council member, you could always rely on that staff in the Speaker’s office, and you have the all the really, you know, the oversight that comes with being in the hearing situation, and also the budget

You have some pretty heavy tools if you use them. And I also think the city council should do a whole lot better with technology. And when I mean, obviously, I was chair of the technology committee before. Now the thing, what we’ve done in the borough president’s office is we have a whole technology nonprofit called beta NYC, which is in our office. And those four staff people work full time with the community boards with open data, which is also something that I focus on, as you know, because I passed that bill, open data is the way in which every city agency has to put their data on a platform, open data platform, and then that data, we analyze for the community boards and show them how to do it. So we have a whole technology, part of the borough president’s office, and I think the city council, whether it is on its own YouTube, Facebook, you know, really, you know, has to improve because the council meetings are super boring. And the way in which they’re delivered needs a lot of improvement. So how the city council uses its own voice, technologically, I think also needs to be improved. So what I’m saying is, even though you have a small staff, you can use the hearing process, the budget process, hopefully, the technology, to be much more visible.

And in my case, the West Side, as you know, has always been a leader in terms of issues. Ruth Messenger with, I don’t know, she and Ronnie Eldridge were very well known in terms of either tax abatements, changes or all the different ways in which they took the lead on policies that change citywide. So I hope to have that role also, you know, given my experience. There is no end to the changes that this city needs if we’re going to come out of this pandemic, including everybody and not just certain people.

Maurice Pinzon: As council member in any position you will be working with a new mayor. What do you think of the top 3 contenders (Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Maya Wiley)? Can you work with all of them?

Gale Brewer: I can work with all of them. Obviously, Eric Adams and I have been colleagues in the borough presidency. Katherine Garcia was a phenomenal. I knew her as Sanitation Commissioner, but I really got to know her as the Food Czar, because one of our issues has always been food insecurity in the borough president’s office. We could see immediately that the seniors were being hurt, could starve, if it wasn’t for her leadership during the pandemic. I mean, we were the leaders in bringing this issue to the forefront in terms of seniors, home bound, and food and she did turn it around. And then as the chair of the technology committee, I worked constantly with Maya Wiley when she was general counsel to the mayor because she too is a techie. And we worked on testifying in Washington, in front of the FCC together, we worked on open data together. We worked on municipal WiFi together and the list goes on. We worked on suing Verizon together with the FCRC. All three of them, I can work with, to answer your question.

Maurice Pinzon: What do you think of the recently passed NYC budget?

When I was on the council, I was on the budget negotiation committee, and to the credit of Mayor Bloomberg, this rainy day fund was established. And now it’s more legal, it was a little bit of, let’s just do it. And it wasn’t had to have like a different name. But now it’s a legal, I call it, rainy day fund. But it is something that could be used for the future. To the credit of the city council, I believe the mayor has put in, and the City Council, obviously, about a billion dollars total. And so that’s a good amount. It could be more, but it’s a billion dollars in the rainy day fund for the future. I think this huge budget, there are two issues. Number one, some of the money has to be spent by September, the rest of the money has to be spent, as you said, by December 31st 2024. And if it’s not, then it goes back to the federal government, you certainly don’t want to send money back to the federal government.

So you know, I have looked at it. I have looked at – we certainly did. We have to do by law, a budget sort of impact study what we think and so we submitted that some weeks ago, and we do tend to focus on some of the issues that I mentioned the food insecurity, the seniors, you know, workforce issues, things that we in the Borough of Manhattan think are important. All the schools. So I can’t say look, line by line. But I do think that we have a good, good year. I do think there are some agencies, they could be, you know, collapsed, or lots of people working in the mayor’s office, some of that could in fact, be collapsed. I think the issue with the budget is to see what exactly are the essential services that New Yorkers need, obviously, housing, housing, housing, supportive housing would be perhaps my first listing and public safety. Those are the two however you define both of them. Those would be the two that need immediate support. And obviously, they’re complicated. They’re complicated in terms of mental health, they’re complicated in terms of where do you find the sites. They’re complicated in terms of, you know, long term, affordability for those who are in need of supportive housing, and there’s so many different issues.

But I hope that that’s what we look at for the future. This budget is large, you know, hopefully, it also figures out a way to coordinate like, I do, like the outdoor restaurants, I like the bike lanes. I like the bus lanes. I like the fact that people are using the streets and the parks and open space, and we’re trying to have open streets. Trying to have the arts in the open streets. But it turns out from my reading that there are about 25 city and state agencies that operate in the streets and the sidewalks and they’re not coordinated. So one of the questions I would ask. Do we need a public realms Czar, a public space Czar. And is that something that this budget helps to do? Because the agencies have got to coordinate. I think that’s been a problem in the last 12 years. And how do you make? How do you write a budget that has more coordination. And the other thing about this budget that I think it did not include is units of appropriation, which basically means that you have to as an agency head, break down the budget. You can’t put in I’m making this up $10 million for “Other” at the Department of Homeless Services or something like that. Has to say what the programs are, that it’s paying for. So that as the city council, when you do your oversight, you have some way of measuring, did that money go toward what it is that it’s supposed to? So these are some of the issues that I would look at in the future, you can do that with a small staff because you have a great staff in the Speaker’s office.

Maurice Pinzon: How do we strike a balance between “over-policing” and public safety?

Gale Brewer: That’s a very good question, Maurice. And it’s one that everybody is asking. I’m a big fan of Jumaane Williams. I endorsed him when he ran the first time. And he and I have been talking about this a lot. I don’t have the answer. But I have a couple of ways that it could be done. I think fairly. You know, the police are – at the highest levels – I don’t know when you get down to some of the officers. But at the highest levels, I spent a lot of time with the police. And I do think they understand that the over-policing is a big problem. And it doesn’t bode well.

Let me give you an example of what their challenges are. So we’re working now in Washington Square Park, and I am doing, convened a group, as I indicated, to look at the drug treatment issues, which is different than some of the other issues. But I hope that you know, we now have, we’re going to have seven day coverage of people with people who do drug treatment and their peers, and hopefully that’ll help with those who need our services. So those are the most vulnerable. But the issue of, you know, people who are just, you know who hate cops, or who are protesting in the park or whatever. That’s a harder group to be honest with you. I have, I was on a drug treatment board for 25 years before I was elected to the council. And it’s a community that I know well. So okay, that we can work on. The issue with the other groups though, I, you know, we, I thought the police could, you know, maybe meet with some of the leaders and see if they can work out something so it’s not a constant in the park and not be so upset about the closing times, and so on. So, it seems to me that that would be possible. Well, the problem is that the police won’t go into the park unless they have helmets. And, you know, when they look like they’re an invading force, because they’re afraid of getting bottles and other things thrown at them. So here, you’re, now you’re still gonna have police going into the park that look like, you know, the invading force with the pull down helmets and, you know, massive amounts of numbers. So that’s a, you know, that’s an example of, Okay, so the cops won’t go in unless they have this uniform that is quite invading looking. And then people who are in the park, you know, are not going to be respectful of that, I assume. And it doesn’t seem to me even though people have tried to talk to some of the leaders, it doesn’t seem to be particularly, you know. It doesn’t seem to be some kind of compromise. So that’s an example.

When you go to other places where you have guns. Now the mayor, to his credit, has called in the national, a, you know, the folks who do anti-gun patrol and who are the ATF, the firearms. And they, according to Jumaane Williams, who met with them recently, he’s very hopeful, because these are the people who know how to maybe deal with the I-95. You know, the driving from Virginia, West Virginia, Texas, of bringing the guns into New York. There are something close to like 100,000 illegal guns circulating in our streets right now. That’s a lot of guns. So can they, can the ATF folks do something about it? That would be helpful. It is about guns.

It’s also about, you know, if you figure during the pre-pandemic as an example, nightlife, which is, I don’t know, $14 billion industry in the city of New York is closed, it’s still closed. So that was an example to all of those jobs. So many jobs are not available to people right now. Because even though it looks like people were back on the streets, a lot of the jobs are not still available. So the question is, how do you get the guns off the street? And then how do you get people back to work? It’s a coordination.

So you definitely have the cure the violence groups that are probably doing more than we know. When I meet with them, there are two of them in Manhattan. And when I meet with them, they do an awful lot of stopping violence, you know, 2 people having a beef, they managed to settle it. So that doesn’t get in the paper. What gets in the paper is when somebody shoots and hopefully doesn’t kill or does kill, that’s what gets in the paper. But these cure the violence groups do a whole lot of good. So we need more of them. And we need to get the guns off the street. I think that would help as opposed to, you know, cops going in, or people with as I described, looking like an invading force.

How, and then, you have the mentally ill who are just pushing people on the subway or saying anti-Asian, anti-Semitic, horrible things. And they, they’re just mentally unstable. So then the question is, okay, so they get arrested, this is what happens, they get arrested. Rikers is not the right place for them. But guess what, there isn’t any place for them under this administration. So one of the questions is, where do we get them settled, so that they have support, they should not be going to Rikers Island, and they’re going to come out and it’s going to be worse. So what are we doing with those who are mentally unstable, they’re probably more now because of this pandemic. In the past, pre-pandemic, they might have been in a location where they were getting their medication on a regular basis, whether it was somebody, you know, some caseworker paying attention to them. That is not true now. So the whole mental illness is a real challenge that has to be addressed, but it has to be addressed. Like, what are we going to do with individuals who need that support? It’s not the cops say, I arrested this person, you know, and also the courts have been closed until this week. Well, then, you know, they get let out without any necessarily follow up. There’s a whole piece there of, you know, cure the violence, jobs, mental illness, what do you do with them? The cops can’t do all this. And now the cops are told they can’t deal with the homeless and they can’t deal with the vendors, the homeless are going to dealt, be dealt with with the Department of Homeless Services. And the vendors because you see, that was the fight in Times Square. The vendors are being dealt with by the Department of Consumer Affairs and worker protection. But those two agencies are not coordinating well with police department as we speak. Hope, I would guess what I’m trying to say to answer your question over policing over-policing has to stop, but the other agencies have to step in. And right now, I don’t think they have actually stepped in.

Maurice Pinzon: Commissioner Steven Bank of HRA and Dept. of Homeless Services hasn’t been able to solve or even improve the homeless issue. What hope do we have to ever solve this issue?

Gale Brewer: I think it is a couple of things. And you know, Liz Krueger knows as much about this as anybody. But first is when people come from the Upstate prisons, they should not have to go to the shelter system. They should be working with the groups that do this sort of work. Fortune Society is just one of them. There are many others. Where those groups should be trusted with supporting those individuals. It is crazy for them to go to the shelter. It’s expensive and it doesn’t do them any good. Right now as we speak, Fortune Society, and I’m sure there are others. It’s just the one I know. They are trying to get a couple more buildings to be able to house these individual, almost 100% of those who may take you know on a transitional basis with the support services very differently than going to a shelter. They then get permanent housing for and that person does not go back to prison. So there’s no recidivism. That’s what has to happen.

Number two. There are a lot of veterans in the system. Now those folks come from the different services. They come to New York, maybe they’re from here, maybe they’re not, they go directly to the shelter system. So we need to be able to work with the army, Marines, Air Force, etc. to say, if you’re coming to New York, please let us know that Mr. Jones is coming to New York. And then we can work with him to put them right into the veteran system as opposed to the shelter system. Same thing.

I know that the city under Steve Bank’s leadership has done everything they can to keep people in their apartments. There are programs that do that and say, okay, but that they need to be enhanced. They need, you know, if you’re overcrowded, let’s find a way for you get another apartment, and not end up in the system. The other question I have to say is some of the families are going to their credit from this shelter to NYCHA, but they’re not doing social services in NYCHA. And there are a whole bunch of issues. And I have a feeling some of those folks might end up back in the shelter system.

You have every single step of the way, give people a lot of support, whether it’s people coming out of jails and prisons, or people coming from the armed services, or people, you know, before they end up homelessness, homeless, giving them support before they have to leave either an overcrowded situation or an abusive situation. There’s a disconnect, or those who are mentally ill, right, who we know can be unhinged, because they don’t have the medication. So I think the answer is, I don’t know the answer to your question. It’s partly unemployment. But these systems just don’t seem to talk to each other. And that’s what I find mostly frustrating. And that’s what I hope to help, because I do know, where they need to talk to each other.

Maurice Pinzon: Can we make it easier for the public to get access to City Hall?

Gale Brewer: In terms of access to City Hall, I would absolutely. This is the decision of the mayor. I don’t think the city council can do this. Even a cop, not just a cop is a problem. It is so depressing to watch tourists look at this big fence and not be able to walk across City Hall Plaza. I hate that. I would move the scanners right up to the building. Not in the plaza because I want people to be able to walk across the plaza. It’s the people’s house, but I don’t like it at all.

Maurice Pinzon: How can City Hall improve government operations with technology. What do we do about the dysfunctional New York Board of Elections?

Gale Brewer: Well, in terms of the board of elections, I have great confidence, as you do, in State Senator Liz Krueger. And in the Assembly member Nily Rozic, and those two have a bill along those lines, it is a state issue. I mean, we could sit here and talk about the Board of Elections forever, but the only thing the city council can do is have a hearing and maybe a resolution. So I look forward to what happens on the state level.

The second issue in terms of Estonia and E-government – Ireland also is quite good on the topic. The issue is, it’s a little shocking, but no surprise, perhaps to you. For instance, during this pandemic, we worked with the Business Improvement Districts, obviously, to try to make sure to keep these businesses alive. I can talk more about the challenges of vacant storefronts and what we’re trying to do about them, we are waiting from the Department of Finance to give us the data. A bill I passed four or five years ago said, every owner of every building has to tell us what’s vacant and what the square footage is. So we’re waiting for that data to come in any moment now. The reason I mention this is during the pandemic, we talked to the BIDs and the Chambers of Commerce in the Borough of Manhattan. There is a real difference between who has the ability to do that in their store and who does not. Obviously Midtown, everybody, you can send an email, send a text and you get an answer. You cannot do that in Washington Heights and Harlem. They just don’t have the capacity. They do not do online like they should. So it’s a good idea to do E-government. But first, we have to make sure that we have enough capacity, either strong, inexpensive Internet, and that, you know, sort of not no-competition big company. And we have to figure out how the small businesses have and are trained to use it. There’s a real difference here. In Washington Heights we had to go door to door with leaflets and talking to people. I want to, I think what happened in Estonia and elsewhere is they they just skipped, you know, the, we always had, you know, phones and landlines. And so like all that got skipped. Like it did in Africa. And they didn’t have to deal with the copper lines and the big companies. They were able just to go wireless and figure out how to communicate. That is not the situation here. So we got to figure out the last mile issues. We got to figure out the cable issues. We got to figure out the tech issues. We got to figure out the municipal Wi Fi issues. So I’ve just mentioning it. I agree about E-Gov. But first it has to be some infrastructure, I think. I’ve been shocked at how little there is.

Gale Brewer: I just want to thank you, Maurice, for all your years of service and interest in civic affairs. And I love that you’re doing this podcast. And I think there’s no end to the way in which we have to talk about these issues, because they’re complicated. I always remember that in terms of the city of New York, the only budget that is bigger is the United States, the state of California, the state of New York, and then us. So we’re bigger than Texas and Florida. And we’re bigger than half of the countries in the world. So we’re a big country, in terms of how we operate. It’s so complicated. And so I hope that you know, as the council member, I can help, I can contribute to making people’s, New Yorkers lives better.

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Editor’s Note: This conversation with Borough President Gale Brewer was recorded on Friday, July 2, 2021. Due to technical difficulties during the initial podcast recording, the Borough President’s recording was not at the same sound level as Maurice Pinzon’s. Instead, she called into the podcast.

Editor’s Note: Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Maurice Pinzon did some free-lance photography work for the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.

About Maurice Pinzon

Maurice Pinzon writes an opinion column.
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