Testimony on Oversight of the Veterans Advisory Board: Impacts of Last Year's Reforms

On Wednesday, January 13, the NYC Veterans Alliance presented testimony before the NYC Council Veterans Committee on the performance of the Veterans Advisory Board since reform legislation was passed in February 2015:

My name is Kristen L. Rouse, and I am a veteran of the United States Army. I served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and I live in Brooklyn. Over the past year, I have served as President and Founding Director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, the only local-level organization that has, to date, provided detailed policy recommendations to NYC government based on surveys and direct input from the NYC veterans community.

Last year we advocated for reforms to the city’s Veterans Advisory Board, envisioning this as a great start toward revitalizing the role of a body that our community had seen as ineffective in meeting its chartered purpose to advise MOVA on the needs of NYC veterans. Nearly a year later, we see that the VAB has indeed changed as a result of these reforms. But we must state here that the new VAB is not yet in compliance with the letter—or the spirit—of the laws that were passed last year. If we truly believe that veterans deserve the best support from government possible, then we simply cannot accept low standards and a continued lack of accessibility, presence, and transparency for this important government body representing NYC’s veterans.

First, we are disappointed that some newly appointed members of the VAB have not been regularly attending meetings. With all due respect for our fellow veterans, it must be pointed out that Mr. Greinsky, Mr. Devine, and Ms. Juarez have each attended only one of the five meetings since the reforms took place. Ms. McClinton attended only two. This means that four of the eleven VAB appointees had in-person meeting attendance records of less than 50%. We understand that everyone is busy, but we recommend that if VAB members choose to continue serving the terms of their political appointment, they should attend more than half of the meetings and be part of the VAB’s presence in communities. It should go without saying that if the VAB is required to hold in-person meetings in all five boroughs—then most of the VAB’s members should be there, too.

Second, we are disappointed that the implementation of the email addresses mandated for VAB members ended up being Gmail.com accounts rather than city email addresses. It should also go without saying that, at a minimum, these email accounts should work. Yet when I tried to email Mr. Devine this week, a return message came back saying that his email address did not exist. The intent of having dedicated email addresses was for all VAB members to be accessible as representatives of the veterans community who we could reach out to. This endstate simply has not been met.

Third, meeting notices have not been in compliance with the requirements of last year’s reforms. The VAB is required to publish notice of each public meeting in accordance with Article 7 of the public officers law, with meetings scheduled at least one week in advance, and the announcement made to news media and posted conspicuously in public areas at least 72 hours in advance. The VAB is further required to notify veterans organizations by email and post the notice on MOVA’s website at least one week in advance. These requirements have not been met. For example, the November meeting was announced by email and on social media (a “conspicuous public area”) only four hours in advance of the meeting. Other meetings have come on such consistently short notice that many of us have been unable to attend. Again, we realize everyone is busy, but these last-minute announcements are not only out of compliance with the law, they also minimize the attendance and participation of the public and veteran organizations in these important meetings.

Fourth, last year’s reforms required the VAB to record and broadcast each meeting in accordance with section 1063 of the City Charter. There has never been any announcement of broadcast times for these meetings, and there has been no link or mention of any video recordings until they appeared—almost as if out of nowhere—on the MOVA website yesterday afternoon. This is better late than never—but again, this coming at such a late hour, and long after the meetings themselves, only minimizes public participation and knowledge of the VAB’s activities.

Fifth, and most importantly, the VAB has been tasked with advising MOVA on “all matters concerning veterans,” and to keep a record of its deliberations to that end. It must be noted here that, as of this testimony, there have been no records of the VAB’s actual deliberations posted online in the meeting minutes or elsewhere. Meeting minutes only briefly describe presentations by MOVA and city agencies, and announcements of events or initiatives that a VAB member brings up. There are also brief notes showing public testimony, although there is no detail or follow-up noted for any of the concerns or issues raised by members of the public indicating that VAB members are even addressing this in their deliberations. There has also been no record of any actual advisement that VAB members or the VAB as a body have made to MOVA, City Council members, or any government agency over the course of the year. I’ve heard anecdotally about VAB members acting in an official capacity over the last several months, meeting and speaking privately with agencies, public officials, and organizations—yet there is no public disclosure of who, when, or where VAB members are meeting or acting in this official capacity, or what issues were even addressed. Last year’s reforms required the VAB to be transparent in its official functions, yet the VAB is failing to disclose its actual activities and functioning outside of the public portion of its meetings. It is disappointing that even after last year’s reforms, the VAB is little more transparent than it was previously.

Lastly, the VAB’s end of year report—a summary of the VAB’s advisement over the course of a year—was mandated to be completed no later than December 31st, a deadline that came and went without explanation. Yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours before this oversight hearing, the end of year report appeared on MOVA’s website. The report states repeatedly that good policy recommendations are important, but only appears to state what MOVA is already planning for its transition into a Department of Veterans Services this year. This appears to be a report by MOVA to the veterans community—which would be the first time MOVA has actually produced any written product for our community— but does not in any way reflect deliberations by VAB members or advisement of the VAB to MOVA on behalf of the veterans community. There is no mention of recommendations or input from members of the public who spoke during the meetings, which included members of my organization, such as veteran street vendors who were at most of the VAB meetings last year, or the property tax exemption issue that has been brought to the VAB and to City Hall for several years now with no result. Meeting minutes show a VAB member stating he would refer this to the Public Advocate’s office, but mention of deliberations or meetings with the Public Advocate appear nowhere in the end of year report. In short, the VAB’s end of year report is interesting, but not what was mandated by last year’s reforms. If the VAB is indeed advising MOVA or other government entities, the end of year report must reflect the deliberations of VAB members and the outcomes of what they advised based on its public meetings and other official activities and deliberations. If MOVA wishes to issue a public report—we recommend that it do so through its own channels, and not use the VAB as its mouthpiece.           

In summary, VAB appointees should continue to serve in their appointed government roles only if they can regularly attend meetings in person, be accessible and interactive with the NYC veterans community, and disclose their official functions in a written record in order to provide the transparency required by last year’s reforms. Meetings must be announced in advance, and any written report must show that the VAB is actively advising MOVA and other government entities, and not the other way around.

On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.