Kallos Looks Back and Forward In Detail

Q&A With City Council Member Ben Kallos

David Stone
Q&A With City Council Member Ben Kallos
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Nearly four years ago, Ben Kallos won both a hard fought primary and general election to become New York City's 5th District Common Council Member. As he nears the end of his first term, we asked Kallos to answer some questions about the last four years and what he foresees in a possible second term.

Roosevelt Island Daily: In 2013 you ran as an insurgent "Reform Democrat" against an incumbent Democratic Assembly Member and the Democratic party machine, then a well-financed Republican and an Independent in the general election. A newcomer no more, how do you plan to set voter expectations now that you have a track record to run on and one your opponents can run against?

Ben Kallos: As a candidate, I ran on a platform of “fresh ideas” that were endorsed by the New York Times. I  have spent the past three and a half years working not only to make these ideas a reality but to get new fresh ideas from residents. We have accomplished more than I ever expected to be able to do in my first term.

Through our open office with Participatory Budgeting, First Friday, Brainstorm with Ben, and Ben In Your Buildings, our partnership with community leaders has allowed us to get so much done. This partnership has been key whether it was expanding Universal Pre-K with RIPN, RIDN and RIOC, ferry service with EDC, RICC, and RIOC, or putting over $1 million for a green roof at P.S./I.S. 217 with P.S./I.S. 217 PTA, the Girl Scout Troops 3001 and 3244, and Roosevelt Island Garden Club.

To the residents who have been empowered, advocating, fighting and leading the way alongside my office, thank you, and I am excited to get to work on whatever the next big goals of residents on Roosevelt Island are.

RID: If you had to grade yourself on your first term as City Council Member, what would that grade be and what have you accomplished (or not) to achieve that grade? 

BK: In 2013, I ran on investing in education including universal pre-kindergarten, improving transit including a new ferry, and opening up my office as your office to empower residents to get more done than any of us could do alone. My first term is best graded on how we’ve succeeded in fighting for those key issues. Countless residents have taken me up on our “open office” at First Friday, Brainstorm with Ben, and Ben In Your Building, leading very strong partnerships with our community. Three and a half years later we have a lot to show for it.

Ben Kallos with Roosevelt Island kids at Blue Dragon Unveiling.
Ben Kallos with Roosevelt Island kids at Blue Dragon Unveiling.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In 2014, I joined Mayor de Blasio to advocate for $300 million from Albany for Universal Pre-Kindergarten and won, only to learn we only received 18 half-day seats on Roosevelt Island. I was devastated and brought the lack of seats to the attention of the Department of Education only to be told we had no need. In 2015, parents from Roosevelt Island reached out and we began working with P.S./I.S. 217 Parent Teacher Association and Roosevelt Island Parent Network (RIPN) to first go from half day to full day pre-kindergarten and then double the number of seats to 36 at P.S./I.S. 217. But Department of Education again claimed no need, so my office worked with RIPN to identify every three-year-old on Roosevelt Island. We handed that list to Department of Education and they admitted there was a need but nowhere to build the school seats. My office collaborated with the RIPN to reach out and put pressure on every child care provider on Roosevelt Island and Roosevelt Island Day Nursery (RIDN) answered our call. With the assistance of the President Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), Susan Rosenthal, we were able to get RIDN opened and cut the ribbon of 54 additional free pre-kindergarten seats for Roosevelt Island in the fall of 2016.

In 2013, I joined the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) to testify in favor of ferry service for Roosevelt Island, so I knew how important it was. Starting in 2014, I began my advocacy with the Economic Development Corporation to ensure any ferry service including Roosevelt Island. When the Mayor announced it, I was overjoyed and worked to facilitate the ferry service between RIOC and EDC to ensure it moved forward to provide Roosevelt Islanders with additional transit options. I was proud to launch the Roosevelt Island ferry this summer.

During my campaign, I noticed that the CitiBike roll out for the Upper East Side had omitted Roosevelt Island. I jumped into action working with the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) to pass a resolution calling on the city to provide CitiBike on Roosevelt Island. As a Council Member, I am disappointed that I have not delivered on this promise yet, though I negotiated Roosevelt Island into the yet-to-come Phase 3 expansion. Not satisfied with waiting for Phase 3, we’ve begun to have meetings to explore an earlier roll out.

Once I took office, residents came to me with a long-standing concern regarding services for seniors on the Island, and as a reformer, I worked with those whistle blowers to get their allegations investigated. A few years later, wrong doing was uncovered, with justice served, and as reported by the Roosevelt Island Daily, the Roosevelt Island Senior Center is under new management by Carter Burden, serving twice as many seniors.

Kallos with Carter Burden Network Executive Director Bill Dionne (R).
Kallos with Carter Burden Network Executive Director Bill Dionne (R).
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

I’ve done my best to keep campaign promises, empower residents and do my job. City and State News used objective criteria to measure the performance of all 51 New York City Council Members and I was humbled to be the only first-term Council Member ranked in the top 5.

There is so much more to do, whether it is preserving and building new affordable housing, supporting new businesses on Main Street, or opening the long delayed Roosevelt Island library. I look forward to working with Roosevelt Islanders to make it happen.

RID: On a personal level, elected officials often share that public office puts extensive demands on their personal life that become free after leaving office. How do you manage work/life balance?

BK: I often tell people not to work a day of their life. If you can find a job you love, a job you would do for free you may put in long, challenging hours, but it won’t feel like work because you will love every moment of it.

Roosevelt Islanders have heard me say, “I’ve been your Council Member for three years, 8 months and so on down to the second.” It is because I love my job and cherish every moment that I am able to serve 168,000 residents working to make my district and the city a better place.

Before running for office, I volunteered on Scott Stringer’s campaign for Borough President, served on Community Board 8 Manhattan, and even served as Chief of Staff to Assembly Member Jonathan Bing for the Upper East Side, so I could learn about campaigns, representing our community and what it meant to be an elected official.

In 2012, I was working a more than full-time job as Executive Director for a good government group, running a technology consulting firm, managing my law practice, coordinating statewide voter protection efforts for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, actively dating, training and competing in triathlons and attending community meetings nearly every night. In a lot of ways, I have a lot less on my plate, I’ve found and married my wife, gotten my dream job, stopped consulting and retired from my legal practice having written the law to eliminate outside income that made the City Council a full-time job. Though I find myself just as busy as I was before now every moment more fulfilling is directed at serving my constituents and the city.

RID: Participatory budgeting, where you allow constituents to help determine where discretionary funds will be spent, helped Roosevelt Island win support for the Green Roofs Program at PS/IS 217. But few of your fellow Council Members use this grassroots democracy tool. What do you see as advantages and disadvantages? 

BK: Throughout our nation, more now than ever, there is a sense that our government isn’t working and our democracy is in some ways broken. I ran to start fixing it at a local level, beginning with my Council office. As a constituent, I felt government was broken because it was not accountable to residents, but as an elected official I have learned that if democracy means “ruled by the people,” people need to not only participate but to have a meaningful role in government decision making. That is why I was one of the first eight Council Members to adopt Participatory Budgeting, where residents set the ballot and decide on how to spend 1 million dollars in the community. The process has great potential with more residents voting every year, reaching 2000 votes this past year. However, the drawbacks are that many projects cost more than a million dollars, without a delegate your project may not even make it on to the ballot, and with over 130,000 residents eligible to vote, less than two percent turnout is disappointing. The good news about Participatory Budgeting is that it is community led and I hope that your readers will take this call to action as an opportunity to improve the process, get more people engaged, and play a role in how 1 million of your tax dollars is spent in your community.

RID: You’ve been frustrated with the state of New York City schools, especially the inevitable inequities of institutional segregation. How are you battling for change and what successes have you seen?

BK: We need more school seats on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island with new residential construction only making matters worse. When I ran, I proposed converting storefronts into schools, which has come to fruition, as we’ve been able to use these spaces for pre-kindergarten throughout the city. As a Council Member, I’ve proposed a rezoning to block buildings for billionaires in favor of height caps which would include height bonus for community facilities like schools (as well as affordable housing). I have visited every school in my district, where the lack of diversity I saw [JT1] led me to introduce legislation to get the Department of Education to report on the relationship between geographic and ethnic diversity in public schools. New York City is more segregated today than before Brown v. Board of Education and I hope to pass my bill into law so that we have all the information we need to finally desegregate our city.

RID: Sticking with education, you won a substantial increase in Pre-K funding for Roosevelt Island. What’s the future of that initiative?

BK: As we look forward, we must ensure every four-year-old has a seat as we push universal child care. At this time, every parent that has reached out to us on Roosevelt Island appears to have a seat. Should any four-year-old on Roosevelt Island not be offered a seat they need on the Island, they should contact our office and we will likely circle back to RIPN to begin our fight anew. As we fought for a seat for every four-year-old, I cautioned the Department of Education that I was fighting for and would win universal childcare, doubling, if not tripling the magnitude of the problem at the time.

Additionally, earlier this year, as Vice-Chair of the Progressive Caucus, I helped author a platform of 18 Progressive Policies for 2018 that included Universal Child Care starting with using existing federal funding to expand universal pre-kindergarten to 3 year-olds, and shortly thereafter the Mayor announced a 3-K pilot in two Council Districts. I will work to bring 3-K to Roosevelt Island.


RID: To some observers, your campaign’s engagement with the community during the ULURP made a critical difference in 2013 because your opponents seemed largely absent. But there’s more to governing than winning votes. What key accomplishments do you see as part of your legacy of achievement regarding Cornell Tech and campus construction?

BK: When I was growing up, my grandfather, who was a physician, would tell me stories about taking the elevator down from the 59th Street Bridge to care for patients at Coler-Goldwater Hospital.

In 2012, when I launched my campaign, the City Council was considering the hospital’s demolition and replacement with a campus for Cornell University and Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Residents on Roosevelt Island were very concerned about the future of those who lived, worked and received care at Goldwater as well as the future of Roosevelt Island and what the new campus would bring. In response Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) was formed to represent the Roosevelt Island community with the leadership of Christina Delfico, Joyce Short, Mark Lyon, Dave Evans, Judy Buck, Matthew Katz, Ellen Polivy, Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, and Nikki Leopold. I was honored that I was able to support the efforts of RICC, joining them in presenting testimony at the City Council’s Zoning Committee. In 2013, Cornell University provided 13 pages in commitments tied directly to RICC’s advocacy.

As anyone who has ever signed a contract can tell you, that is the easy part. The hard part is everything that comes after it, along with the concern that maybe you could’ve done better. Work started in 2014, after I was sworn in, when we began working closely with RICC and P.S./I.S. 217 on ensuring Cornell Tech’s began to deliver on its commitments.

During construction and demolition, thanks to the watchful eye of RICC, RIOC, and our office, we succeeded in ensuring air quality monitoring and that all demolition, heavy materials, and nearly all bulk materials were transported by barge to keep construction vehicles off Main Street and limit the strain on the Bridge and Helix.

We worked with Cornell Tech, the P.S./I.S. 217 PTA, and the Roosevelt Island Senior Center to launch the first events connecting Cornell Tech graduate students with public school students and seniors on the Island. As part of that partnership we also brought teacher training and enrichment as well as computer science classes to P.S./I.S. 217.

Now that we opened more than two and half acres of public space at the new campus, we can now begin to ensure Cornell Tech continues to deliver on outstanding commitments to “adopt PS/IS 217 as part of Cornell’s education mission,” limit vehicular traffic, manage waste and recycle, fund improved Red Bus Service as needed, provide space to community organizations, provide computers for the senior center, mentor post–high school students, provide “shadowing” for P.S./I.S. 217 students of scientists, and to consider Roosevelt Island organizations and services prior to outside organizations.

We will also work with Cornell Tech to plan for the future by collecting on commitments to study alternatives uses for the steam plant and reintroducing pedestrian and bicycle access from Roosevelt Island to the Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge. Maybe we will one day be able to take the elevator down to Cornell, just like my grandfather did to Goldwater.

RID: From the Tram’s 40th Anniversary Celebration to Roosevelt Island Day, you have personal feet on the ground frequently here. What have you learned about Roosevelt Island as a community? What advice would you give us for the future?

Kallos at the Tram's 40th Anniversary Celebration.
Kallos at the Tram's 40th Anniversary Celebration.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

BK: Roosevelt Island is a small town in the middle of a big city. It is a place where, as a child, I could play with my friends from school who lived on the Island without fear of strangers. It is an oasis with pools, tennis courts, sports fields, theatre and so much more in one place. Roosevelt Island provides a model of civic engagement with a residents association boasting representatives from every building on the Island that empowers its residents to be more engaged in the democratic process than almost anywhere else in the city. I would only ask that residents continue to engage and for others to join them in making Roosevelt Island a great place to live.

RID: Although you're of the same party, it seems that your relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio isn't always comfortable. Is that a matter of your independence as a district representative or are there fundamental differences?

BK: Mayor de Blasio and I share a number of values and priorities. I am proud to have partnered with him to protect and expand transportation for Roosevelt Island by approving the tram license for another fifty years and bringing ferry service to Roosevelt Island. We’ve worked together on programs and legislation to make progress toward equal pay for women, help our homeless, provide tenants facing eviction with a right to consultation or representation by an attorney, stand up for immigrants, preserve New York City as a sanctuary city, and so much more.

But at the same time, I have been disappointed on several issues when my district has been left out.

We both agree on Universal Pre-Kindergarten, but there are more seats than needed in many parts of the city, leading to our 4-year-old children being asked to take hours-long subway commutes, and as a result, we’ve had to fight for every seat and are still thousands short in my district.

On opening day, Kallos watches as RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal becomes the first person to arrive for work on Roosevelt Island on an NYC Ferry.
On opening day, Kallos watches as RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal becomes the first person to arrive for work on Roosevelt Island on an NYC Ferry.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

We both agree on affordable housing. The Mayor set an ambitious goal of preserving 120,000 units of affordable housing, but when we brought the Urban America portfolio on Roosevelt Island to the city’s Department Housing Preservation and Development they refused to assist.

We both agree that children should have supervision and enrichment outside of school, but every year we in the City Council have had to fight cuts to the Roosevelt Island Youth Program’s Beacon Funding. 

Despite these battles, which I hope can be avoided in the future, the Mayor ultimately does the right thing almost all of the time.

RID: If you win reelection, how would you rank your major priorities for your next term?

BK: My top priorities on Roosevelt Island will remain Education, Transportation, Affordable Housing, Emergency Services, Cornell NYC Tech, Public Library, Senior and Youth Programs, and continuing our open office and partnership with the community. 

We will continue to invest in STEM education at P.S./I.S. 217 by getting the multi-million-dollar green roof built and support our teachers and students. I will continue to work with Cornell Tech on their commitments to the school.

With the ferry service launched, we must ensure that the service lives up to its promise while continuing to advocate alongside Assembly Member Seawright for the same transfer we won from the tram to the MTA. I will also continue to work with CitiBike and RIOC on bringing bike share to Roosevelt Island. I also hope to work with Roosevelt Island to study the feasibility of restoring the access from the 59th Street Bridge my grandfather had to the Island when he worked here.

We will continue to do everything we can to support tenants in affordable housing on Roosevelt Island and ensure that Hudson Related builds the affordable housing for the Island that is years overdue.

Q&A With City Council Member Ben Kallos
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Living on an Island with limited transportation options make emergency services and public safety important. When I got reports that 911 wasn’t working on Roosevelt Island, we brought City Hall, Office of Emergency Management, NYPD, 911, RIOC and RIOC PSD together to resolve the problem, with yearly updates and check-ins at our annual town hall. 

With Cornell Tech now open and on Roosevelt Island we finally have an opportunity to welcome our new neighbors into the community in hopes that they not only meet but exceed all of their commitments.

I look forward to reopening the Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library in its new space at 524 Main Street and ensuring that new providers on Roosevelt Island offer even more services to even more youth and seniors.

Although we do our best to predict and prepare for the future, the most important thing I can do is keep my office open to the Roosevelt Island community with monthly mobile hours on the Island, our annual Town Hall, monthly First Fridays and Brainstorm with Ben, and coming to you for Ben In Your Building.

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