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Transcript: Councilmember Stephen Levin on ‘member deference’

September 10, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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The following is a direct transcript from a 10-minute opening statement given by Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin at a closed-door Brooklyn delegation meeting about the borough-based jail plan. The proposal, a ULURP currently before the City Council, would establish four new jails in every borough besides Staten Island as part of the city’s plan to close the violence-plagued jail complex at Rikers Island by 2026. 

During the meeting, which the councilmember opened before turning it over to Brandon Holmes, a member of the national organization Just Leadership USA, Levin referenced a controversial City Council precedent called ‘member deference,’ which historically — on land use matters — has meant that councilmembers vote in line with the member whose district is directly affected by the proposal. 

Levin mentions member deference once, toward the end of his comments and says he did not mean to pressure other councilmembers to vote in favor of the plan, which he supports. Following our report, Levin requested that the Brooklyn Eagle publish the audio recording obtained from a City Council source to provide context to his comments. The Brooklyn Eagle has decided to publish a transcript of the audio. 

Thank you. Thank you, chairs. I’ll be quick. So, as all of you experience in the council, as Mark [Treyger] said, this is a ULURP and this is kind of like the mother of all ULURPs because it’s four sitings combined into one. The four boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Manhattan.

The other districts, for those of you who don’t know are, Councilmember [Margaret] Chin, Councilmember [Karen] Koslowitz and Councilmember [Diana] Ayala and this is to me, you know, I’ve been here for 10 years almost. And this is like the culmination for me of everything that I feel like we’ve been working on since I got here. You know, the council has become a much more progressive council now really, the day that I arrived was the you know, that was the class that ushered in the progressive caucus, Councilmembers like Councilmember Williams and Councilmember Lander and Councilmember Chin, Danny Dromm. We all came in the same time. And so all of the things that we care about, around criminal justice reform, around making our city live up to the ideals that we espouse. All that is kind of coming to the fore and I also thank Melissa for really spearheading this — Speaker Mark-Viverito.

So here we are. This major issue — national implications. Closing Rikers Island, reducing the jail population by more than half in 10 years, doing that through the mechanism of land use, which is, like, to me is like perfect. It’s so City Council to do that because what better, crazy mechanism do we have than ULURP?

But here we are. And we’re having a hearing on Thursday. And so it’s all of these things kind of wrapped into one. And in some sense, I think that there’s kind of a confluence of interest because, you know, I have my neighborhood NIMBY, you know, or not even so much NIMBY. It’s just kind of concerns around the normal things that you might associate with ULURPs — height and density.

Just to put this into some kind of context, they had initially proposed a building that was like a 21 FAR, where it’s currently at 3.5 FAR.

So for those of you that have dealt with land use, we went from a 3.5 to a 21, that’s like a six-fold difference. For those of you that know the building, it’s not a tiny building to begin with. So, you know, the neighbors are not, like, totally out of bounds to say, wait a second, a 21 FAR building? That’s enormous. That’s the size of the municipal building, a little bit smaller. So they’re not crazy to say that. And so when they bring those concerns it’s like yeah, all right. Let’s work on reducing the size of the building.

Well, in order to reduce the size of the building, there needs to be less people detained. And how do we get to have less people detained? We reform the system. And that’s where we’re really happy about the state law changes this year of discovery reform, speedy trial reform, bail reform.

But — and that’s going to significantly reduce the population — keep in mind, this is 10 years out. And then there’s the overall trends of just less crime and less detained population over the course of time anyway.

Another thing to keep in mind that I’m sure, most of you know is that if you’re detained in New York City — in the New York City jail system — it’s because you’re either pretrial or you’ve been sentenced to anything less than a year. Anything over a year people will be serving sentences in the state prison system upstate. But the majority of people detained are pre-trial.

So there’s this confluence of where we can continue to reduce the population, to reduce the size, it makes it more amenable to the local communities. This is not just in Brooklyn. This is in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx as well.

But in addition to that, there are things that we can do, not just rely on state law changes, but things that we know are effective. That this council has been effective in advancing over the last five or six years that I think that we can use this opportunity to continue to invest in. So things like Cure Violence initiative, crisis management, you know, all the work that Councilmember [Jumaane] Williams was doing and Councilmember [Vanessa] Gibson.

I think that we have an opportunity and if we’re working with the advocacy community to try to hone in on where we can see an enhancement of programming and services that can have that type of upstream impact, real upstream impact.

You know, Man Up in East New York has been very successful to my understanding. And talking to Councilmember [Diana] Ayala there’s a Cure Violence initiative program in West Harlem, but not in East Harlem. So, you know, where can we expand to? How can we enhance the programming? How do we put greater resources? ATIs and, you know, the whole range of things.

I think at this point, it’s just a matter of resources. Otherwise, we could be doing more. So if we invest more, we can do more. And so I want to kind of think of this as an opportunity to have that conversation instead of frankly being like, well, maybe we can have a park in Boerum Hill or, you know, another park in Boerum Hill or, you know, I mean I guess we need a dog run but, like, whatever, you know, I mean, I’m not I’m not looking to kind of have that kind of sidebar conversation so much as, like, what do we want to do that’s really pertinent to this issue?

So with that, I have, you know, really, really grown to admire and respect Just Leadership.

And Brandon is here — Brandon Holmes from Just Leadership — because without them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Absolutely. And they have taken on a real leadership role in that they’re out there advocating for this and trying to push the ball forward on really difficult questions and putting themselves out there.

There’s groups to the left of Just Leadership, No New Jails, that, you know, have been out there attacking Just Leadership.

They’re in communities. They’ve been putting in the time to be in communities. Brandon has been coming to all of our neighborhood advisory committee meetings in Brooklyn and having a real conversation with people that are sometimes uncomfortable conversations, sometimes, but they’re candid conversations.

And I can remember one instance in particular where I think Brandon really got us to focus on what we’re really talking about here. And it had the impact in that group of really refocusing everybody on what’s at stake and kind of when members of the neighborhood advisory committee are kind of going off into NIMBY territory or kind of veering off into these different directions. You know, it’s been really essential, totally essential, to have Just Leadership in the room providing that way forward. So I have nothing but respect and admiration for Brandon [Holmes] And Darren [Mack] and everybody at Just Leadership for doing what you’ve been doing. And we’re almost there.

And one last thing, by the way. For members and for staff, if there’s any issues that you have that are coming to mind through this process, please let me know or Elizabeth [Adams] on my staff or the chairs.

But kind of bring it to me because it’s going to be starting to get pretty intense, and because, as you know, the way that with land-use there’s some member deference. Councilmembers [Margaret] Chin, [Diana] Ayala and [Karen] Koslowitz and myself will be kind of in that role collaboratively so if there’s anything that’s coming up, please let us know so that we’re kind of able to incorporate things as far in advance as possible so that we’re not kind of scrambling last minute to try to get things done.

We’ve got 10 years of land use has given us some guide as to how to do this in as orderly a way as is possible.

So, this will be fun.

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