Odd Update to NYC Open Data Tech Manual — First Since Late 2012

New York City’s Open Data Law, passed in 2012, was a landmark for sharing government data with the public in a machine-readable and reusable format. The law itself is fairly simple because it leaves the details to a Technical Standards Manual written by NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). The Technical Standards Manual was first published in September 2012, and has recently been updated for the first time.

Oddly, the new Manual does not reflect the huge amount the public and city government have learned over the last three years about what has worked and not worked with implementing the world’s first open data law. This is a bit inexplicable, since insightful and detailed public feedback to the City’s open data efforts has been presented at half a dozen City Council hearings, and another dozen or so hack-a-thons and public events. Also strange is that the manual only refers to one of the  seven new amendments to the Open Data Law that the City Council has passed in the last year.

Reinvent Albany and the NYC Transparency Working Group were unaware that a new update to the Manual was to be published soon, and we had hoped that the new Manual would incorporate the new laws and voluminous public feedback. Maybe DOITT will begin frequent updates of the Manual and this is the first installment. We shall see.

The new section, §7.4 on Data Dictionaries reads:

As mandated by Local Law 107 of 2015, all data sets on the Open Data portal must be accompanied by a plain language data dictionary, with the goal of making the data more understandable.

Outlined below are the minimum standards that must be adhered to:

  • Agency name, data set name, data set description, and update frequency must all be provided
  • Each column name should be listed and defined
  • Where applicable and reasonable, terms, acronyms, codes, and units of measure should be defined
  • To the extent practical, a range of possible values should be included
  • History of modifications to data set format should be documented

Agencies may choose to provide additional information deemed relevant, including but not limited to, method of collection, relationship with or between other data sets, system of record, field lengths, etc.

Data dictionaries can be provided in a file format of an agencies choosing, but must include the above minimum requirements.

While we understand that Local Law 107 of 2015 mandates the creation of a data dictionary, and we welcome the effort to update the open data law and its regulations, this particular section is puzzling. Of the five bullet points, four of them are not mandates but suggestions. Further, the first two points merely repeat the requirements of existing sections of the Technical Standards Manual: § and §, respectively.



Really Closing New York’s Corrupt LLC Loophole — Cap Contributions Per Person or Ban LLC Contributions Like NYC

For no good reason, New York State allows LLCs to contribute $60,800 per candidate while restricting corporations to $5,000.  Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo proposed also capping LLCs at the corporate limit. This is a bit better than nothing, but will probably not make much of a difference in the real world. This is because LLC’s are extremely easy to create, and in places like New York, real estate moguls have hundreds of LLCs and could easily create hundreds more. According to Transparency International, in most US states it is easier to create an LLC than get a library card — and you can do so anonymously.

Real Reform: $5,000 cap per beneficial owner: the person, union or company who actually controls
By far the best way to close this loophole is to cap contributions from any beneficial owner at $5,000 per candidate.  The beneficial owner is the person or corporation which actually controls subsidiaries. This cap gets to the problem of rich people, unions or corporations creating dozens or hundreds of subsidiaries to funnel campaign contributions through. This is not close to happening in New York State because powerful interests here, and the politicians they are legally paying off, do not actually want to do anything to reduce the gusher of political cash. Less powerful, but still a big step forward, New York State could simply ban contributions from LLC’s the way New York City has.

Howard Milstein’s 149 LLC’s: If  Cuomo LLC contribution cap passes he will “only” be able to contribute $745,000 via his existing LLCs
Howard Milstein is a very wealthy NYC real estate developer, and major political donor, who was appointed by Governor Cuomo to chair the board of the NYS Thruway Authority. By our count, Milstein’s 2013 state ethics disclosure form shows he has sole control over at least 149 LLCs. If Governor Cuomo’s LLC cap on LLC was to pass, Milstein would be limited to contributing “only” 149 x $5,000 or $745,000 per state candidate, plus that amount to county or state party accounts — plus, Milstein could easily create hundreds or thousands of new LLC’s if he wanted to. (Some online app will create an LLC for you for only $75. ) Milstein’s JCOPE form is a window into the LLC empires that major NYC real estate developers all have — but unlike him, they have not had to file a disclosure form.


Public Authorities Control Board Failing To Protect Public

Board Approves $485.5m For SolarCity/RiverBend Without Getting Answers

Today, the Public Authorities Control Board failed to do its job, which is to hold state agencies accountable before approving huge sums of taxpayer funds. At a minimum, the PACB should have made representatives from the Cuomo administration publicly answer basic questions about how the SUNY Research Foundation secretly negotiated and approved a huge reduction in Solar City/RiverBend job targets with zero public notice or input — and no public announcement.

Why should the public have any confidence that other New York State economic development subsidy agreements are worth the paper they are written on?

This is about much more than SolarCity’s RiverBend plant. Why should the public have any confidence that other economic development subsidy agreements are worth the paper they are written on? The $750 million subsidy for SolarCity’s RiverBend plant was based on the promise of 1,450 well-paying factory jobs to reduce unemployment and poverty in Buffalo. Instead, Buffalo is getting 500 factory jobs and the promise of white collar and technology jobs.

We are disappointed in the PACB, which was created to ensure that the governor and state authorities are accountable to the public. The PACB did not ask the hard questions and did not get any answers that the press and public have asked about the governor’s use of state non-profits for state economic development programs. The PACB did nothing to ensure that the job targets for other highly subsidized state projects are honored.

Questions the PACB Should Ask About Solar City and State Econ Dev Non-Profits

Does any New Yorker think taxpayers should spend $1.5 million to create one factory job for five years? Well, that’s exactly what is slated to happen at Solar City’s $750 million, taxpayer funded, Riverbend factory in Buffalo. As part of a secret agreement between Solar City and the SUNY Research Foundation the number of factory jobs Solar City pledged to create at the plant was slashed from 1450 to 500. Details of the deal have never been publicly announced, but were discovered by reporters at the Investigative Post in Buffalo when they reviewed state records and company financial filings.

The fact that SUNY Research Foundation, a state controlled non-profit was able to OK a huge reduction in promised jobs, with no review by the legislature or public comment, is a very big deal for New Yorkers. It raises the question of whether any of the state’s giant taxpayer subsidy deals are worth the paper they are written on. Factory jobs for Buffalo  — not white collar technology or marketing jobs —  was the political selling point and policy rationale for the $750m investment of taxpayer funds in the Solar City plant.The city of Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the United States, and the basic idea behind the Solar City factory was to provide well paying factory jobs for unemployed people from poor Buffalo neighborhoods. There is no way that the legislature would have appropriated funds for the Solar City deal if they knew so few factory jobs would be created.

On May 25th, the Public Authorities Control Board will vote to release $485m in state funds to the Solar City Riverbend factory. The PACB includes representatives from the Governor, State Senate and Assembly. If we were legislative representatives we would have serious questions about the Solar City project and about the state’s economic development projects led by SUNY Poly and the SUNY Research Foundation.

Questions the PACB should ask about governor’s use of non-profits to for very large state economic development projects

  1. Do you believe it is appropriate for SUNY RF to OK a huge cut in factory jobs for the state’s marquee economic development project without any public comment or legislative oversight?
  2. How do we know that SUNY RF or SUNY Poly or another state controlled non-profit won’t slash the job or investment targets for another major subsidy project?
  3. Why shouldn’t the legislature have a say in major changes in extremely large state subsidy contracts?
  4. How is it good governance for the state of New York to have non-profit organizations, which appear not be subject to state contracting and conflict of interest rules, be responsible for spending and overseeing billions in tax-payer funds?
  5. What state body is supposed to be ensuring that state controlled non-profits are acting responsibly?
  6. Why not shift responsibility for all state economic development to the Empire State Development Corporation?
  7. What is the point of having ESDC and its professional staff if not to oversee this kind of development?
  8. Is the SUNY Research Foundation, SUNY Poly, Fort Schuyler Management a government agency or an independent non-profit group?
  9. If SUNY RF is an independent non-profit group, how is it that the contract between SUNY RF and Solar City says that SUNY RF is an “affiliate” of the State of New York,  which means, per the definition in the contract, that the SUNY RF is “controlled” by the State of New York. Is SUNY RF controlled by the state?
  10. How is that a non-profit can be controlled by the state and not subject to the same rules as state agencies and authorities?









Disturbing Revelations About Accountability and Corruption Risk in Cuomo’s Econ Dev Empire

New Yorkers have been reading headlines about U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s probe into the activities of top Cuomo aide Joe Percoco and close Cuomo family friend and lobbyist, Todd R. Howe. Coverage of the probe has centered around payments to Percoco from firms with lucrative state economic development contracts. But in the last week, new revelations have raised huge questions about the accountability and basic integrity of the enormous economic development programs run by SUNY Poly president Alain Kaloyeros, and the SUNY Research Foundation’s role and responsibility in managing large state subsidy projects.

Here’s what we have learned in the last week:

  1. With no public notice, last September the job target for factory jobs for the heavily subsidized Buffalo Billion project was slashed from 1,460 to 500 jobs. The huge reduction in jobs was approved by the state-controlled non-profit, SUNY Research Foundation. The original job target was the governor’s justification for spending $750m in tax dollars on the RiverBend solar panel factory for Solar City. Given the $750m subsidy, each new Solar City factory job will cost New York tax payers $1.5m or $300k per year over five years. The huge reduction in jobs was discovered by reporters at Buffalo’s Investigative Post. They found the new target in regulatory filings submitted by Solar City to the Securities and Exchange Commission in October 2015.  The much-reduced job target was agreed to by the SUNY Research Foundation, a state controlled non-profit. Which in turn raises a big question: why does the SUNY RF have the authority to completely rewrite the economic development targets that are the political and policy basis for huge state subsidies? How often is this done? And why should the public trust of any of these agreements going forward?
  2. The boards of directors of the state-controlled non-profits overseeing giant subsidy deals include people who are getting big contracts from these same non-profits or other state agencies. Executives from LP Ciminelli served on the board of the Empire State Development Corporation while LP Ciminelli was receiving hundreds of millions in state contracts. The president of EYP, an architecture firm with its offices inside the SUNY Polytechnic building in Albany, served on the board of Fuller Road Management, while his firm received millions in contracts from Fuller Road and from SUNY Poly. And, Joseph Nicolla, the president of Columbia Development Company serves on the board of SUNY Poly, though his company built SUNY Poly’s $190m ZEN center, and has a new contract from SUNY Poly to build college dorms in Albany. Both EYP and Columbia Development are under investigation by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
  3. The State Ethics Commission, JCOPE, has given at least one permission slip to a top state official, which appears to allow conflict of interest when dealing with state subsidies. While he was the State’s Director of Operations, Howard Glaser was hired to teach at Columbia U. business school by William Eimicke, who was also working as a consultant for businesses receiving $100s of millions in state economic development contracts, including COR Development. While he was effectively Glaser’s boss at Columbia University, Eimicke met with Glaser on behalf of COR. (COR also paid Cuomo aide Joe Percoco $75k in consulting fees, while Percoco was on leave from the governor’s office running Cuomo’s campaign.)  JCOPE’s three executive directors have all been top officials in the Cuomo administration prior to serving at JCOPE.