Connecting state and local government leaders
STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Rule change in Alaska would allow the attorney general to defend governor … California passes sweeping rent control laws … Illinois gas tax brings in millions in revenue.
A proposal in the New York City Council would require landlords to provide their tenants with physical keys, defining them as a “piece of shaped metal with incisions cut to fit the wards of a particular lock,” with the goal of restricting the use of facial recognition technology to open doors. Councilmember Rafael Espinal said that companies sometimes use “shady or deceitful tactics” to expand their facial recognition databases. “While this technology has the potential to be utilized in a number of positive ways, there are several valid concerns that need to be addressed,” he said. The measure comes after a lawsuit was filed by tenants of a building in New York who claimed that the smart lock technology in their building had malfunctioned. The company that created the smart lock in question, Latch, is supportive of the measure in city council. “Consistent with the bill, we strongly oppose the required use of biometrics to enter apartments. We also believe credential flexibility is critically important—which is why all of our dwelling-entry products are compatible with multiple credentials including a mechanical key, smartphone, door code, or keycard,” the company said. Councilmember Brad Lander, the bill’s sponsor, said that the use of smart keys and facial recognition pose a serious threat to tenants’ rights. “[This] falls disproportionately on lower-income communities of color who are already subject to greater surveillance in their daily lives. Requiring owners to give every tenant a traditional key, and prohibiting them from requiring the use of tracking technology, are important steps toward preventing landlords from surveilling and intimidating their tenants,” he said. Councilman Bob Holden, who chairs the technology committee, said that the city doesn’t know enough about how companies are using facial recognition. “We really have to get to the bottom of what agencies are actually using in the city of New York. What are they doing? If we don’t know that, we’re in ‘1984,’” he said. [The Real Deal; New York Daily News]
RULE CHANGE | A proposed rule change in Alaska would allow the attorney general to defend the governor or lieutenant governor when confronted with an ethics complaint. The attorney general’s office said the change would make complaints easier to handle, but opponents of the change said that it could cost taxpayers money when state officials step out of line. Under the current rule, they are required to hire outside counsel when facing ethics complaints. Former Attorney General Michael Geraghty said that the change would likely be benign because the department could decline to represent state officials when signs of a violation are clear. “I would think in those kind of circumstances that the (attorney general) would decline to appoint a representative, but in many other instances, it’s simply: They’re engaged in government business,” Geraghty said. But another former attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth, said the idea was misguided. “It’s a bad idea and inappropriate use of state resources. The primary client of the attorney general is the state of Alaska, and the public and the people of Alaska. We might find the state defending actually valid complaints made against the governor...and that would be an inappropriate use of state assets,” she said. [Anchorage Daily News; Alaska Public Media]
RENT CONTROL | California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a statewide package of rent control measures aimed at addrressing the state’s housing crisis. The new law limits rent increases to 5% each year plus inflation until January 2030. It also bans landlords from evicting people in order to raise the rent for a new tenant. It takes effect in January 2020. The bill has several notable exceptions, such as not applying to housing built in the last 15 years, single family homes that are owned by individuals, and duplexes where the owner lives in one of the units. Russell Lowery, executive director of the California Rental Housing Association, said the law will make life more difficult for landlords. “It adds unnecessary expenses to all rental home providers and makes it more difficult to sever a relationship with a problem tenant,” he said. But Sasha Graham of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a group that advocates for low-income renters, said the bill could have saved her and her son from being homeless for three years after an eviction. “It is not an overstatement when I say that the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 will literally save lives. It will prevent millions of families from facing the same kind of outrageous rent increases and unfair evictions that put my son and I on the streets,” she said. [Los Angeles Times; Associated Press]
GAS TAX | Illinois saw an additional $100 million in revenue in July alone due to an increase in the state’s gas tax, which added an extra 19 cents per gallon for regular fuel and 24 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. On average, residents now pay the third-highest combined state and local taxes on gas in the nation. State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, a Republican, is now pushing for the tax to be repealed. “Every single time we pass taxes we don’t include any reforms and that’s wrong and that’s what the people of Illinois are feeling right now at the pump,” he said. But state Rep. Mike Murphy, also a Republican, said the state needs the money to support important infrastructure projects. “I strongly feel like we needed to improve the revenue stream. It hadn’t been changed in 20 years. I think some of the things that we did in this bill will make it so in the future we can make sure we take care of our roads and bridges. We just let them go into disrepair into unbelievable amounts,” he said. [WJOL; Center Square]
APP COMMUNICATION| Some staff in the office of the Washington, D.C. mayor are using WhatsApp to communicate, an app that isn’t covered by open records laws requiring communications to be preserved and made available upon request. While it isn’t known how widespread the practice is, one staffer told public radio station WAMU that it is “commonplace” for individuals and groups to discuss government business on the app. Thomas Susman, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, said that city employees might assume their communication doesn’t fall under open records laws, but it probably does. “If the communication on WhatsApp is, ‘What did you think about the presentation on the new lottery contract?’ that’s public business…If the mayor doesn’t clamp down on it then I’m confident there will be a legal challenge to that because the public’s business should be done in a medium that’s available for public access,” he said. Bowser’s office said that they “communicate using a variety of methods to accomplish our work in an expeditious manner.” [WAMU]
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.