The leading candidates in the 48th District City Council race to replace term-limited Michael Nelson battled it out at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center during a candidate’s forum held by the Jewish Press last week, expounding on their qualifications for the job and their proposals for improving the district.
Mixed in the melee, which included a handful of attacks on their fellow candidates, the four leading Democrats and one Republican expressed mixed support for participatory budgeting, an innovative plan implemented by some City Council members to provide a more democratic and transparent way of distributing millions of dollars of discretionary funding throughout the district.
Three of the five Democrats – Theresa Scavo, Igor Oberman and Chaim Deutsch – expressed explicit support for participatory budgeting when asked about the need for reform to the process, while the fourth Democrat, Ari Kagan, and the lone Republican, David Storobin, suggested that they would continue to oversee distribution of discretionary funds without holding public meetings, the core characteristic of participatory budgeting.
“I can tell you right now, any discretionary funds I have will be brought out to the public. I will hold meetings, town hall-style meetings. If you want funding, come before your peers and tell me what you need that money for,” Scavo said.
Currently, eight City Council districts across the five boroughs distribute funds via participatory budgeting, including David Greenfield (Midwood, Borough Park) and Jumaane Williams (Midwood, Flatbush). The process was initiated to battle the misuse of funding allocations. Participatory budgeting allows residents to determine the fate of millions of dollars destined to their district, shining a light on the process. Through a series of town halls and community forums, residents gather to propose ideas for the money and ultimately vote on the proposal.
Oberman echoed Scavo’s sentiments, saying that participatory budgeting adds transparency to a system that is largely left to closed-door negotiations by Council leadership.
“You clear through all the smoke and you get to the issue: what does the community need? And the best way of doing it is by the involvement of the community,” Oberman said. “I hope that one day ‘participatory budgeting’ will replace the word ‘pork’.” Oberman was the only candidate to use the term participatory budgeting.
Deutsch, the founder of the Flatbush Shomrim, which has benefited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in discretionary funds from multiple council members, also spoke in support of the services discretionary funds allow for the community, and said he’d similarly ensure transparency.
“I would get more input from the communities. I would have these organizations come out and present how they will spend the money and what kind of services they will be doing for the community,” he said.
The City Council has approximately $50 million in discretionary funds, allocating an average of about $1 million to each district. Some candidates receive more depending on their favorability with Council leadership, while others receive less, leading to criticism of the process as an exercise in political favoritism. From 2009 to 2013, Michael Nelson doled out some some $3,093,471, putting him somewhere in the middle of the pack when compared to the amounts his colleagues have received.
The process has also come under attack for being politically motivated or “pork funding,” at the district level, with some council members steering funds to reward organizations that have proved to be loyal supporters. High profile cases like those of now-incarcerated Councilman Larry Seabrook, who sent millions to a phony non-profit he controlled and used to distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to his girlfriend and family, have tarnished the process further, with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara calling for reform of the system. Some have called for the funding to be terminated altogether.
Republican Storobin slammed such abuses, saying that the funding is useful because “sometimes you need to provide help for people,” but that it can often be abused. He pointed to the recent allegations against Councilman Domenic Recchia.
“Instead of helping his own district, a district that got beat up by Hurricane Sandy … the money went to Staten Island, where he’s campaigning for Congress. He’s using our money to campaign for Congress. That needs to stop,” he said. He promised to spend the funding on community needs, but did not propose any reforms to the distribution process.
The partisan rebuke was met with an equally partisan response from Kagan, who has received Recchia’s endorsement in the race.
“Definitely if someone abuses the system, if someone takes advantage of it like Republican Councilman Dan Halloran of Queens, of course we have to prevent all kinds of abuse like that. But I’m very proud to have the support of Councilman Domenic Recchia who provides millions and millions and millions of dollars for Southern Brooklyn communities,” Kagan said. He similarly did not propose instituting any reforms, but expressed support for continuing the system as a way to steer money to vital community services.
Aside from the participatory budgeting question, the candidates spent most of their time at the forum discussing their qualifications for the Council while offering little in the way of proposals. When asked if forced to make a choice between slashing funds for senior services or funds for education, for example, all of the candidates spoke of increasing funds for both.
To bring city spending under control, all said they would eliminate waste and increase efficiency – again without offering any specifics. Several of the candidates had somewhat dubious responses, including Storobin who said he would ensure the city “spends the money we have, not more, not less,” apparently unaware that the city is required by its own charter to have a balanced budget and is unable to spend more than it takes in in revenue. Another questionable proposal came from Kagan, who said he would create revenue for the city by contracting beachside kiosks that would rent chairs and umbrellas. But parks concessions would only add hundreds of thousands of dollars, at most, to a budget of $70 billion (not to mention much of that money would likely be earmarked to maintaining the park in question).
The forum did, however, give each candidate an opportunity to frame their own narratives for victory, with Scavo and Deutsch focusing on their years of constituent services and records within the community (Scavo as chair of the Community Board, and Deutsch as an aide to Councilman Nelson). Kagan rattled off the support he has earned from other local politicians, as well as the work he does with Russian seniors and Holocaust survivors, and for Comptroller John Liu, for whom he was a community liaison. Oberman portrayed himself as the most balanced candidate, with experience in both legal and budgetary issues. As a lawyer and administrative law judge, he said he has the experience to craft legislation, and through serving as the president of Trump Village 4, he has budgetary experience by maintaining its $22 million budget. Storobin, meanwhile, portrayed himself as the outsider candidate that will end the rule of the Democratic machine.