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Critical component of jail plan concealed from the public for ‘optics’: sources

December 12, 2019 Noah Goldberg

A decision to reduce the size of four new jails was made months ahead of a contentious vote, but sources tell the Brooklyn Eagle that it was quietly withheld from the public in favor of political theatrics that could benefit the “mayoral ambitions” of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Days before the City Council’s vote on the mayor’s borough-based jail plan in October, the members announced a big win: They had secured significant reductions in the heights of each of the four proposed jails in response to local concerns that the city was building massive towers of incarceration in their neighborhoods.

But according to numerous sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations between City Hall and the City Council on the controversial land use measure aimed at closing the violence-plagued jail complex at Rikers Island, the Mayor’s Office had already planned on making the reductions to the facilities months earlier — but Johnson wanted to announce it as a council win just before the vote.

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While some with knowledge of city politics say the desire for a publicity “win” for the council is an unsurprising part of the negotiation process, the last-minute nature of the announcement belied the fact that the reductions were planned by the Mayor’s Office months in advance, the sources said.

One source with direct knowledge of the negotiations compared the performance of the council’s height negotiations process to a “second-tier regional theater troupe.”

“Was this the best way of handling something as massive and important as the dismantling and reshaping of New York City’s jail system? Or would it have been better to put the public’s interests ahead of the speaker’s desire for good optics?” the source asked.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a press conference the day of the borough-based jail plan vote. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle/ Noah Goldberg

The Eagle confirmed the account with multiple people with knowledge of the negotiations between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office. Sources spoke under the condition of anonymity in order to share information freely.

According to the sources, City Hall originally planned to announce the height reductions over the summer, before the land use measure even reached the City Council. The reductions in height were based largely on statewide criminal justice reforms to bail that will mean far fewer people incarcerated in the city pre-trial. The projected population of the jails started at 5,000 in the original plan, then dropped to 4,000 before ultimately falling to a projected 3,300-person detained population by 2026.

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The Mayor’s Office planned to include the height reductions in what was going to be presented to the City Planning Commission before the Speaker’s Office told them not to, according to numerous sources.

“The Mayor’s Office came to us with the height reductions and initially wanted to make the announcement on their own,” a council source told the Brooklyn Eagle. “The Speaker’s Office pushed back, asking that City Hall wait so the council could claim the reductions as a win before the final vote.”

“They wanted the council to get more credit right before the vote,” the council source said, noting it was not “the most honest way to frame things.”

The same source noted that the heights win was important for the council from a public relations standpoint.

“It’s obvious that Corey wants to run for mayor and be able to take credit for as much as he can,” another source with direct knowledge of the negotiations told the Eagle.

Johnson’s office disputed the claims.

“There were no delays in any announcement,” council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Reaching a consensus on jail population reduction and the corresponding building design changes required a lot of time and analysis.”

Fermino said the mayor’s and council’s teams met until the end of the land use process trying to resolve “technical issues.”

“The notion that we had this wrapped up months ahead of the vote and that it was all ‘political theater’ is completely untrue,” Fermino said. “This story ignores the very real challenge we faced in estimating the jail population. It was one of the most important calls we had to make, and it came down to the wire. We had to get this estimate right in order to responsibly approve height reductions. Whoever you’re talking to wasn’t part of these talks and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio did not deny the timeline lain out by sources, but declined to comment on the negotiations or the timeline of the height reduction announcement.

At the City Council’s only public hearing on the jail plan in September — after the Mayor’s Office had already decided to lower the heights, according to the sources — Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz demanded of a mayoral representative that the height of the Queens jail in her district come down.

“The height of this building is absolutely, absolutely, absolutely unacceptable to me,” Koslowitz said. “It cannot be that tall.”

“We are absolutely committed to working with you to reduce the height,” said Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Koslowitz did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether or not she already knew about the Mayor’s Office’s planned height reductions at the public hearing.

The council wanting credit for a perceived win is just business as usual, according to veteran political consultant George Arzt.

“That’s just the way it is: Don’t cut [the height]; let the council do it,” Arzt said. “This is government. This is how things go down and it doesn’t surprise me.”

Betsy Gotbaum, who heads good government group Citizen’s Union, argued that regardless of status quo, the process is not right.

“It may be the way government happens, but it shouldn’t happen that way. Everyone is talking about how transparent they are and that’s what is so upsetting about this,” said Gotbaum. “If it’s true, it’s wrong. We want open government and these games shouldn’t be played.”

Update (3:40 p.m.): This article has been updated to include an additional quote from Jennifer Fermino, council spokesperson.


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3 Comments

  1. Boroughs United

    Johnson is as corrupt as the Mayor. He is punishing the City Council members who had courage to say this is a bad plan by not allowing their voices to be heard. He is not fit to be Mayor or Speaker, pitting one minority community against another. No one wins.

  2. Tribeca Trust

    Disgusting. Should have known. But how dumb these pols are! It wasn’t just about the height, it was about the stupidity of expandig the jails, of closing Rikers instead of renovating and shrinking it, about reforming the system. It wasn’t a Nimby issue, it was a policy issue. Boy did the pols get it all wrong.