Superstorm Sandy informs Treyger’s City Council philosophy
Much of Councilmember Mark Treyger’s public life has been taken up by his non-stop efforts to help Superstorm Sandy victims recover and move on with their lives. There’s a good reason for this, according to the freshman lawmaker who won his council seat in 2013, a year after Sandy hit.
“Sandy was personal to me,” Treyger, a teacher-turned-politician, told the Brooklyn Eagle during a recent interview at the Brooklyn Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Treyger represents the 47th Council District, which includes a large section of Coney Island, a shorefront community that sustained devastating damage in the Oct. 29, 2012 hurricane-like storm.
The 47th Council District also covers Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst, two neighborhoods that saw some Sandy-related damage.
But Coney Islanders suffered the bulk of the damage, as dozens of buildings were flooded or ripped apart by Sandy’s fierce winds.
The desire to help the victims rebuild was part of Treyger’s motivation for running for City Council.
He saw Sandy’s effects even before he got to the council.
Prior to entering politics, he was a history teacher at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst for eight years. He saw the effect the storm had on his students.
“I had students in my classroom displaced. Their homes were destroyed,” he told the Eagle.
Superstorm Sandy was a big theme of his council campaign. The voters of the 47th Council District decided to put their trust in him.
As soon as he was elected, Treyger, a Democrat, got to work. He didn’t even wait to be sworn into office. He lobbied Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to create a new committee, the Recovery and Resiliency Committee, to oversee the city’s efforts to help Sandy victims. “We needed a committee with broad jurisdiction,” he said.
Impressed by Treyger’s passion, Mark-Viverito appointed him to chair the committee.
The first hearing his committee held took place in a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) building in Coney Island called Carey Gardens, rather than at City Hall. “I didn’t want the residents who had suffered so much to have to travel all the way to City Hall for a hearing,” he told the Eagle.
In another tradition-busting move, Treyger scheduled the hearing so that residents, who had been affected by Sandy, could testify first, before city agency heads.
Treyger has been remarkably successful in getting bills that he has sponsored passed by the full council and signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, quite an unusual feat for a freshman lawmaker.
Two of the bills were Sandy-related. He sponsored a bill to create a task force to look into ways the city can help religious institutions and nonprofits that assisted people during and after Sandy.
“They helped save lives. Our local community based organizations went above and beyond the call of duty. But they were shut out of block grant funding,” he said, adding that one church, the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, is still providing housing for people who are helping to rebuild houses under the Habitat For Humanity program.
Another bill that Treyger sponsored mandates that the NYC Climate Change Task Force look to see if telecommunications companies that have contracts with the city are up to date with their resiliency plans in the event another Sandy-type disaster hits the city. The task force is to issue a report in 2017.
He got the idea for the legislation when he realized that thousands of people lost cell phone, Internet and cable television service during Sandy.
Treyger said that the communications gap was so glaring, the FDNY didn’t learn of the massive fire that destroyed more than 100 Breezy Point homes via a 911 call.
“Someone pulled one of those old fashioned fire boxes that you see on the street,” he said, shaking his head.
Treyger also sponsored legislation to order the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to create localized emergency preparation pamphlets.
“Information should be unique to each neighborhood; OEM should be issuing localized information, not generic pamphlets,” he said. “If you live in Coney Island, your emergency preparation will be different than if you live in a community that is inland.”
The councilmember is the son of immigrants. His parents, Naum and Tatiana, moved to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1979. They found an apartment on Bay Parkway and 61st Street.
Both of Treyger’s grandmothers were Holocaust survivors who had been in concentration camps. Both of his grandfathers had fought with the Soviet Union against the Nazis in World War II.
The Treygers, who are Jewish, faced discrimination in Ukraine when that country was part of the Soviet Union. In 1973 Naum Treyger used to enjoy listening to the Voice of America on the radio in his college dorm. A KGB agent visited him and told him to stop listening.
When the Treygers came to the U.S., “They came here with no money,” the councilmember said.
His parents worked hard, he said. “They drilled that into my sister Elina and me,” he said.
Treyger, who spoke Russian at home, was enrolled at P.S. 226 in Bensonhurst. He knew little English but he picked it up fast. He quickly assimilated. “I grew up loving Italian food,” he said with a smile.
He went to Edward R. Murrow High School and then enrolled in Brooklyn College, where he earned a degree in history. He eventually earned a master’s degree in education and has a principal’s license.
From 2005 to 2013 he taught at New Utrecht High School. In fact, he was still teaching when he was running for the council. “Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions ever,” he said.
His dad is a retired special education teacher. His mom is a paraprofessional.
A college professor saw Treyger’s interest in politics and urged him to think about a life in public service.
But even before that, Treyger was thinking about it. At the age of 18, he visited Assemblymember Bill Colton (D-Gravesend-Bensonhurst). Colton encouraged him to become active in local politics.
He decided to go into teaching and kept politics close to his heart.
One of Treyger’s experiences as a teacher led to his sponsoring a bill when he got to the council.
During a classroom discussion of finances, Treyger realized that many of his students didn’t know about the dangers of credit card debt. “And they were already being bombarded with offers from credit card companies — at the age of 17,” he said.
His bill mandates the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs print and distribute financial literacy information, “so that we can supply teachers with materials of consumer rights for young people,” he said.
Much of his time is spent making sure constituents who live in NYCHA housing get the services they deserve. There are at least seven housing projects in his district with tens of thousands of residents. There are 20 buildings in the Marlboro Houses alone.
He recalled that a constituent called him one night in the dead of winter at 11 p.m. to tell him she had no heat or hot water. It turned out that temporary boilers that had been installed outside NYCHA buildings had malfunctioned. The boilers were placed outdoors because the basements were flooded by Sandy.
It was next to impossible to replace the boilers because of a hold-up in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “When there’s a standstill, who suffers? The residents do,” he said.
Treyger went door-to-door in many of the housing projects to translate information on the heat situation for Russian speaking residents He recalled inhumane conditions.
On public safety, Treyger finds himself at odds with de Blasio, a fellow Democrat.
Treyger has repeatedly called on the mayor to hire additional police officers.
“The mayor says the city is growing yet the NYPD still only has 34,000 cops. To me, the numbers just don’t add up. How do you build relationships with cops when you don’t have enough of them?” he asked.
He often thinks about the gravity of his job as a councilmember. “Our decisions impact millions of lives,” he said.
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