Banks To Leave The Legal Aid Society After 33 Years To Head HRA In New City Administration
SATURDAY, MARCH 01, 2014

After a 33-year legal career devoted to fighting for low-income New Yorkers, Steven Banks, The Legal Aid Society's Attorney-in-Chief, is leaving the Society to become the Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration. Mayor de Blasio announced the appointment at a press conference at City Hall, saying “I admire that Steve has been fighting for what he believes is right. He’s been a voice for the voiceless in this city." Banks has served as the Society's Attorney-in-Chief since 2004, after rising through the ranks of the organization from a law student intern and a staff attorney to a series of major leadership positions.

The Legal Aid Society is the nation's oldest and largest legal services organization in the United States for low-income families and individuals, annually handling more than 300,000 legal matters involving criminal, civil, and juvenile rights problems from 26 locations in all five boroughs with a staff of more than 1,900, including more than 1,100 lawyers and more than 700 social workers, paralegals, investigators, and support and administrative staff. The Society's law reform litigation benefits all two million low-income residents of New York City and the Society's cases have a statewide and national impact.

At the press conference, the Mayor said that "I can guarantee you he's going to be good at cutting red tape and he won't accept bureaucracy that doesn't make sense. He's devoted his life to challenging bureaucracy when it didn't make sense." He also noted that Banks has been described as "the most legendary Legal Aid lawyer of his generation."

Over the course of more than three decades, Banks challenged four Mayoral Administrations to meet the needs of the Society's low-income clients and comply with legal requirements through landmark law reform litigation, advocacy, and individual client services.

During his tenure as the Attorney-in-Chief, The Legal Aid Society reached new heights with a national reputation for excellence in providing comprehensive client services for families and individuals with criminal, civil and juvenile rights problems, developing innovative new programs to address client problems and emerging new legal needs, and conducting extensive "know your rights' programs to prevent legal problems from becoming legal crisis. Of equal importance, during the Banks years, the Society has been known for operating within its financial means with a balanced budget each year.

The extensive media coverage following the announcement of the Banks appointment included comments from the leadership of the Board of Directors, members of the Society's management and staff, and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys as well as descriptions of his many accomplishments, including a landmark settlement with the City in 2008 that established an enforceable right to shelter for homeless families. In his memorandum to the Legal Aid staff announcing the appointment, Banks said:

"Serving on the front lines with so many of you and serving as your Attorney-in-Chief for these past 10 years have been an honor and a privilege. The Legal Aid Society of today is dramatically different than the Legal Aid I came to in 1979 seeking a summer internship. Likewise, we are in a very different place than when I became the Attorney-in-Chief in 2004 and we were facing imminent bankruptcy, hundreds of pending layoff notices, and workloads of unconscionable numbers of clients and cases. Together, we have accomplished extraordinary things.

"The great strength of our organization is all of you. I have no doubt that The Legal Aid Society will be an even stronger and an even more important organization for clients because of you. The job that I have had is the greatest legal practice job that a lawyer can have. But it is time for me to take on a new challenge, which I certainly know becoming the HRA Commissioner will be. I also know that The Legal Aid Society will continue to be the leading organization making sure that low-income families and individuals who need help from HRA actually receive it."

As reported in the New York Law Journal, Banks is generally credited with helping The Legal Aid Society regain financial footing after a near bankruptcy in 2004. "He brought stability to the organization," said Seymour James Jr., the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Criminal Practice. "It's in a strong position financially. Prior to him taking charge we had a large deficit, and once that was resolved we had a balanced budget every year. He was very careful about making sure we didn't overspend."

Richard J. Davis, the Chairman of the Society's Board and a solo practitioner since leaving Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, told the Law Journal that "I'm not shocked he got a city appointment." He said Banks has been a "superb chief executive of the Legal Aid Society and I think he'll do a terrific job at whatever he does. He will be missed, no question ." Davis also pointed out that the Society has "a strong bench behind him." Banks will continue to manage the Society's operations until March 31, 2014.

Blaine (Fin) Fogg, Legal Aid's President who is of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, said he would look for the group's next Attorney-in-Chief to be "someone who is a good leader, good lawyer, good with dealing with elected and appointed officials both in the city and state," and working with labor unions. "It's a big job," he added.

Alan Levine, a Cooley LLP partner and a former Chairman of the Legal Aid Board, said "Steven Banks is one of the most capable public lawyers in the city right now. It's not a surprise that a new progressive administration would look to find a role for him." He added that Banks "took control" at a financially perilous time for Society and "[h]e re-energized the board, and I think he established superb relations with the political constituencies." Banks also developed a great working relationship with the administrators of the State court system and with City officials, Levine said.

Following the announcement, reporters interviewed members of the staff, both management and staff, who uniformly said that Banks was accessible, hard-working and knowledgeable of the issues that rank-and-file attorneys had to deal with each day.

Stephen Pokart, a lawyer in the Manhattan office of the Society's Criminal Defense Practice, said Banks "was one of us". Pokart added that "[h]e knew what the battlefield was that we live in."

Dawn Ryan, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Brooklyn Criminal Defense office, called Banks a "visionary attorney-in-chief, a zealous advocate for our clients and an impressive leader." She said that on many occasions she was "able to email [Banks] at one in the morning and he would respond within minutes. There was never a matter too small for him to discuss."

Deborah Wright, the President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, whose membership includes approximately 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers, said she spoke for members when saying Banks would be missed. "This appointment really speaks to who he is and what he has devoted his entire career to." Wright said Banks remained accessible to Legal Aid attorneys, despite the immense law office he headed.

Many people interviewed noted that Banks' most important accomplishment was successfully pushing for State legislation which began to impose case load caps on attorneys for indigent criminal attorneys in 2010 that enabled the Society's Criminal Practice to increase staffing and reduce unreasonably large criminal case loads for the Society's attorneys. Banks worked with Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, James and Wright to accomplish this landmark law.

Several years earlier, Banks had worked with Tamara Steckler, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Juvenile Rights Practice, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, and 1199 SEIU, the support staff union, to achieve client case caps for Juvenile Rights attorneys.

As a member of the Chief Judge's Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, Banks has also worked the Chief Judge, Wright, and Adriene Holder, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Civil Practice, to increase funding for civil legal services and implement other civil legal assistance initiatives to help bridge the access-to-justice gap.

Under his leadership, working with Lou Sartori, the Society's Pro Bono Director, the Society's pro bono program has expanded dramatically, with more than 3,000 volunteers participating annually. In a statement, Chief Judge Lippman said that Banks has worked "tirelessly to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable residents."

"Steve is a dynamic leader who has devoted his career to advocating on behalf of the poor and underserved," Lippman said. "I have no doubt that he will continue in his new role to make a tremendous impact to improve the lives of needy New Yorkers."

DeBlasio said Banks would bring a fresh perspective to City Hall.

“I’ve been waiting my entire professional life to have a mayor who embraced HRA’s mission in the way that this mayor does," Banks said at the City Hall press conference. "What a great opportunity if you're a lifelong Legal Aid lawyer to work for Mayor de Blasio, whose goal is to root out poverty and inequality—and what better agency to lead than the agency that's on the front lines of addressing poverty and inequality in this city."

Below is media coverage in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Law Journal, two articles in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and Politicker.




The Wall Street Journal
New York Mayor Fills Poverty Post With a Critic
Steve Banks Was Top Attorney at Legal Aid Society
By Michael Howard Saul Feb. 28, 2014

The top attorney at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society who for three decades has been a hard-charging advocate for poor New Yorkers will take the reins of New York City's welfare agency, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday.

Over the years, the society's attorney-in-chief, Steve Banks, has spent many an hour on the steps of City Hall assailing mayors and policies that he contended unfairly treated the homeless and other low-income New Yorkers. And the Legal Aid Society—which represents people who can't pay for attorneys in criminal and civil court—has challenged a number of city policies in the courts, from homelessness to food stamp eligibility. Now, for the first time, Mr. Banks has been invited inside City Hall to play a role in developing city policy on poverty.

The Human Resources Administration has roughly 15,000 employees, serving more than 3 million New Yorkers by administering food stamps, temporary cash assistance, health insurance, home care to seniors and HIV/AIDS support services.

Mr. Banks said the agency, which he has been critical of, should be a "helping hand."

"Unfortunately, over the years, it hasn't been a helping hand for people that desperately need help," Mr. Banks said. "But what a great opportunity if you're a lifelong Legal Aid lawyer to work for Mayor de Blasio, whose goal is to root out poverty and inequality—and what better agency to lead than the agency that's on the front lines of addressing poverty and inequality in this city."

Mr. Banks said he has been at the Legal Aid Society through five mayoral administrations.

"This is the first one I'm not going to bring a lawsuit against," he said, prompting a hearty chuckle from the mayor.

Messrs. de Blasio and Banks were once rivals. The two ran against each other for a seat on the City Council in 2001. Mr. de Blasio won.

"I can guarantee you: He's going to be good at cutting red tape," Mr. de Blasio said. "And he won't accept bureaucracy that doesn't make sense. He's devoted his life to challenging bureaucracy when it didn't make sense."

At the Legal Aid Society, where Mr. Banks manages a staff of 1,900, he has been credited with helping reach a landmark settlement with the city in 2008 that established homeless families' right to shelter. Meanwhile, Mr. de Blasio on Friday appointed Nisha Agarwal as commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs and he announced he will be keeping Lorraine Grillo as president of the School Construction Authority.




The New York Law Journal
Banks Is Leaving Legal Aid for a City Position
March 3, 2014
By Joel Stashenko

Steven Banks, who has been attorney-in-chief of the New York City Legal Aid Society since 2004, was named commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday. Banks said he has "waited my entire life" to find a mayor whose attitudes toward low-income New Yorkers are in line with his own.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime to work under a mayor who has the values that I share and the values that are going to make a real difference for the clients that I have represented for so many years," Banks said at a City Hall news conference.

A new leader for the Legal Aid Society was not immediately appointed Friday. Chairman Richard Davis said Banks is not leaving the agency until the end of March and that the group will have sufficient time to choose a replacement.

"We have a strong bench behind him," Davis said.

Banks said one of his goals at HRA will be to make sure the agency treats clients with dignity.

"We've got to look at each policy and procedure to see whether or not people are treated fairly," he said. "The word 'human' is in the title of the agency, the Human Resources Administration. We have to make sure that people are treated as human beings."

He said HRA is on the "front lines" of numerous social issues, including preventing homelessness, ensuring low-income residents receive food and housing assistance and helping people with HIV and AIDS. For his part, de Blasio said he has long watched as Banks has been "fighting for what he believes is right" at the Legal Aid Society.

"I believe he has been a voice for the voicelessness, and a lot of times he challenged government policies that didn't make a lot of sense," the mayor said. "He was an important part of the check-and-balance system in this city."

While city officials and office holders have often not welcomed Banks' criticism of their job performances, de Blasio said they have always respected Banks' integrity and intelligence.

The Democratic mayor added, "I knew his heart, and I think he had a vision for HRA that was really compelling as to how it can contribute to the overall fight against inequality in the city."

Banks and de Blasio were once direct political adversaries. De Blasio defeated Banks in a race for a Brooklyn City Council seat in 2001, though de Blasio said Friday that the debates between the candidates that year "were high-minded and always respectful."

De Blasio also praised the administrative abilities that Banks displayed at the Legal Aid Society.

Banks is generally credited with helping the Legal Aid Society regain financial footing from 2003 and 2004, when the organization faced a projected shortfall of $22 million on annual revenues of $143 million.

The group's fiscal woes stemmed from the decision to construct a new building in Harlem, costs related to relocating its Church Street offices after the 9/11 attacks on the nearby World Trade Center towers, and higher-than-expected pension costs.

The group, which was also forced to vacate its headquarters at 199 Water St. in Manhattan by Superstorm Sandy, stabilized its finances with an infusion of aid from New York City, by cutting personnel costs and with prudent stewardship of its finances.

"He brought stability to the organization," Seymour James Jr., the attorney in charge of the society's criminal practice, said of Banks. "It's in a strong position financially. Prior to him taking charge we had a large deficit, and once that was resolved we had a balanced budget every year. He was very careful about making sure we didn't overspend."

However, Seymour said Banks immediately recognized when taking over in 2004 that the Legal Aid Society did not have enough supervisors and put more into the group's various practices.

The Legal Aid Society currently has a staff of 1,450, about 1,000 of whom are lawyers. The group handles about 300,000 matters for clients each year.

The 138-year-old group is reputed to be the largest supplier of legal services to the indigent in the United States.

Banks, Chairman Richard Davis, President Blaine Fogg and the organization's senior staffed planned to meet on Monday to discuss the transition to a new attorney-in-chief, according to society spokeswoman Patricia Bath.

Davis, a solo practitioner since leaving Weil, Gotshal & Manges, said it was understood that Banks might be lost to the new de Blasio administration.

"I'm not shocked he got a city appointment," Davis said.

He said Banks has been a "superb chief executive of the Legal Aid Society and I think he'll do a terrific job at whatever he does."

"He will be missed, no question," Davis said.

Fogg, who is of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said he would look for the group's next attorney-in-chief to be "someone who is a good leader, good lawyer, good with dealing with elected and appointed officials both in the city and state," and working with labor unions.

"It's a big job," he said.

Fogg said it was not clear whether the Legal Aid board will opt to name an interim or acting chief before Banks' permanent replacement is chosen.

The appointment also didn't surprise Alan Levine, a Cooley partner and a former chairman of the board at Legal Aid.

"Steven Banks is one of the most capable public lawyers in the city right now," he said. "It's not a surprise that a new progressive administration would look to find a role for him."

Levine said Banks "took control" at a financially perilous time for the Legal Aid Society.

"He re-energized the board, and I think he established superb relations with the political constituencies," Levine said Friday.

Banks also developed a great working relationship with the administrators of the state court system and with city officials, Levine said.

"It's a big loss," he said.

In interviews Friday, Legal Aid attorneys praised Banks as accessible, hard-working and knowledgeable of the issues that rank-and-file attorneys had to deal with each day.

'One of Us'

Stephen Pokart, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society's Manhattan criminal defense practice who has worked at the organization for almost 40 years, said, "We will miss him badly, and I'm sure that Mr. de Blasio made a terrific pick for commissioner."

Looking back on Banks' time as the organization's top attorney, Pokart said he "was one of us" and repeating the phrase several times as he discussed Banks' work.

"He knew what the battlefield was that we live in," he noted.

Pokart said Banks' departure, which he announced to staff in a late-morning email, came as a surprise. "None of us had any idea this would happen. There were no rumors flying," he said.

Looking ahead to Banks' replacement, Pokart said he wanted the organization's leadership to pick someone who understood the agency and its clients, not a "corporate type" who wants "to do good deeds" but doesn't know what the problems are.

Dawn Ryan, attorney in charge of the organization's criminal defense practice in Brooklyn, called Banks a "visionary attorney-in-chief, a zealous advocate for our clients and an impressive leader."

She said she was "very sad" the organization was losing him, but "very happy for the opportunity presented to Steve. I believe he'll do a wonderful job."

She said that on many occasions she was "able to email [Banks] at one in the morning and he would respond within minutes. There was never a matter too small for him to discuss."

Deborah Wright, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, whose membership includes approximately 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers, said she spoke for members when saying Banks would be missed. Still, she added, "This appointment really speaks to who he is and what he has devoted his entire career to."

Wright said Banks remained accessible to Legal Aid attorneys, despite the immense law office he headed.

Daniel Greenberg, Banks' predecessor as the organization's top attorney, said Banks has dedicated his professional career to protecting the rights of poor people.

"People who know him only as somebody who sues government don't really understand that he uses the law as a tool to make people's lives better, but he's always been open to discussions and negotiations," said Greenberg, a special counsel at Schulte Roth & Zabel.

Dedicated Advocate

Among the Legal Aid's most notable cases under Banks' watch was the 2008 settlement it reached with the Bloomberg administration in McCain v. Bloomberg. It ended 25 years of litigation with the recognition that homeless people with children have the right to decent shelter from the city.

Michael Cardozo, who was Corporation Counsel under Michael Bloomberg, said Friday that while he had his share of differences with Banks, they also worked together.

He cited McCain as a high point of their working relationship.

During the recession, Cardozo said, Bloomberg's office and the corporation counsel led an effort to get volunteer lawyers to help fill the gaps in representation.

"Legal Aid is a terrific organization and he's done a terrific job of leading it," Cardozo said.

James and Wright, the union leader, both said the Banks' most important accomplishment was successfully pushing for legislation which began to impose case load caps on attorneys for indigent criminal attorneys in 2010.

"That enabled Legal Aid to increase staffing and reduce unreasonably large criminal case loads," James said.

Banks has worked closely with the Unified Court System on a number of initiatives and projects.

He was a member of committees appointed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to study increasing the use of non-lawyers to help low-income New Yorkers navigate the court system and to increase the amount of pro bono hours lawyers should aspire to contribute each year from 20 to 50.

The chief judge said in a statement released by his office Friday that Banks has worked "tirelessly to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable residents."

"Steve is a dynamic leader who has devoted his career to advocating on behalf of the poor and underserved," Lippman said. "I have no doubt that he will continue in his new role to make a tremendous impact to improve the lives of needy New Yorkers."

Banks, a New York University School of Law graduate, has been with the Legal Aid Society for 33 years.

He began his career as a staff attorney in Legal Aid's Staten Island neighborhood office and later became coordinating attorney for the organization's Homeless Rights Project, director of government relations for the civil practice, associate attorney-in-chief, deputy attorney-in-charge of the civil practice and associate attorney-in-chief.

He lives in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Also at his news conference Friday, de Blasio introduced Nisha Agarwal as his administration's commissioner of immigrant affairs.

Agarwal, a Harvard Law School graduate, recently established the Immigrant Justice Corps, a nonprofit that pairs recent law school graduates with legal services providers to represent immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

De Blasio said Agarwal will oversee his administration's agenda for immigrants, including establishing a municipal ID for the city's 500,000 residents who do not have legal permission to live in the U.S.




The New York Times
Litigant Against Social Welfare Agency Will Be Its Leader
By Michael M. Grynbaum
Feb. 28, 2014

For 30 years, Steven Banks has been among the most persistent, consistent and successful thorns in the side of New York City mayors.

Now he will be working side by side with one.

Mr. Banks on Friday was appointed the new commissioner of the city 's Human Resources Administration, a move that places an outspoken activist and litigator at the center of Mayor Bill de Blasio 's left-leaning inner circle.

As a high-ranking attorney at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, Mr. Banks has spearheaded numerous legal challenges against a host of municipal agencies, including a series of landmark lawsuits that helped establish a legal right to shelter for the city 's homeless population.

His tough-minded approach earned Mr. Banks some opponents in past mayoral administrations, particularly within the Police Department, which he sued repeatedly over issues like marijuana-related arrests. But Mr. de Blasio, himself no stranger to the role of liberal critic, said on Friday that he felt a real kinship with his new appointee. And Mr. Banks said he had found the right moment to leap into the government he has long fought.

"I've waited my entire professional life to have a mayor who embraced H.R.A.'s mission in the way that this mayor does," he said.

The Human Resources Administration oversees many of the city 's social welfare programs, and Mr. Banks has frequently sued the agency he will now lead. The Legal Aid Society still has pending litigation against the agency, although Mr. Banks said he had not personally been involved in those suits.

The mayor and Mr. Banks, 56, have a long relationship: They ran against each other for a City Council seat in Brooklyn in 2001, a race Mr. de Blasio won.

On Friday, the mayor also appointed Nisha Agarwal, a public interest lawyer, as his commissioner of immigrant affairs. In an interview, Ms. Agarwal said one of her first priorities would be putting in effect a system of municipal identification cards, a plan that Mr. de Blasio proposed in his State of the City address.

Ms. Agarwal said she would seek to limit the impact of federal deportation policy on the city 's immigrant population and expand municipal outreach and access to legal services.

And Mr. de Blasio appointed Lorraine Grillo as commissioner of the School Construction Authority.

The mayor has not yet named commissioners for several significant city agencies, including the departments overseeing parks, buildings and cultural affairs. But he bristled on Friday when asked if his pace of appointments had been slow.

“We are looking for the very, very best,” he said, adding, “I literally know in my heart when I have someone up to the standards I require, and if I don’t, the process continues.”




The New York Times
N.Y. / Region
De Blasio Picks More Liberal Activists Than Managers for City Posts
By Nikita Stewart
Feb. 28, 201

In Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing.

The mayor, who advanced in politics by grass-roots organizing, has built a team filled with former activists — figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within. His administration is heavily populated with appointees best known for the fights they have fought.

On Friday, Mr. de Blasio appointed Steven Banks, who is the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society and a longtime critic of city policies affecting low-income residents, as commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration. Mr. Banks recently praised the new mayor for transferring hundreds of children and their families from two homeless shelters cited for violations that made the facilities unfit and unsafe for children.

Mr. Banks has spent his career facing off with city government at public meetings and in the courts. But he is embraced in a de Blasio administration.

“We’ve said all along, as we make appointments, our standards are clear,” Mr. de Blasio said in announcing the appointments of Mr. Banks, who once lost to him in a City Council race, and two other officials. “We need people who share our progressive values related to the future of this city.”

Mr. Banks joins a liberal lineup that Mr. de Blasio has been building since taking office in January.

Carmen Fariña, his schools chancellor, had quit the Bloomberg administration in protest over its emphasis on standardized test scores. The mayor’s top political strategist, Emma Wolfe, rose from campus activist to organizer for the advocacy group Acorn, the health care union 1199 SEIU and the Working Families Party before helping Mr. de Blasio get elected public advocate in 2009.

His wife’s new chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, was the longtime gatekeeper for the Rev. Al Sharpton. And his new counsel, Maya Wiley, was most recently in the running to lead the N.A.A.C.P.

Laura Santucci, his chief of staff, is a former acting executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former political aide at 1199 SEIU. Zachary W. Carter, his corporation counsel, was an appointee of President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney in Brooklyn and led the prosecution of police officers in the beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.

At least a few appointees have been less ideological and more managerial. Anthony E. Shorris, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a commissioner in the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch, is Mr. de Blasio’s top deputy mayor, whose duties are to run the day-to-day operations of the city. Polly Trottenberg left her job as an under secretary at the United States Transportation Department to be Mr. de Blasio’s transportation commissioner.

In any case, Mr. de Blasio’s mayor’s personnel choices are just one means by which he appears to be easing the mayoralty from the practical details of governing into a platform for the kind of social change usually achieved on the streets and in the courts.

It is a far different approach from that of his predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who favored agency heads and staff members with button-down business backgrounds.

“Old habits die very hard,” said Mark Green, a former public advocate and mayoral candidate, and no slouch himself as a liberal. “Giuliani was a prosecutor, Bloomberg was a C.E.O., and so far, Bill’s a political labor activist.”

There is also comity with those outside the administration who share similar views. Last week, Mr. de Blasio turned City Hall’s stately Blue Room, the venue for countless announcements by generations of sober-toned mayors, into the scene of a boisterous rally to celebrate a legal settlement that could decide the fate of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn.

Mr. de Blasio had been arrested during a protest of the hospital’s potential closing. Now he could not resist praising each labor leader and activist who had helped in the fight — including a councilman he called “the best damn cellmate an inmate ever had.”

For the fellow activists in the Blue Room, the new tone and style were refreshing.

“I love it, because our voice is there,” said Charlene Nimmons, of the Wyckoff Gardens Tenants’ Association. “We’re connected to City Hall.”

But some observers warn of an echo chamber, since almost no one in the city’s new political hierarchy seems poised to challenge Mr. de Blasio’s policies publicly.

“What’s striking is not who he’s surrounding himself with; it’s the absence of any counterweight to it,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the City Council, and Public Advocate Letitia James — holder of the office Mr. de Blasio used to critique Mr. Bloomberg at every opportunity — are among Mr. de Blasio’s most loyal allies; Ms. Mark-Viverito in large measure owes her job to him.

Aides say Mr. de Blasio works backward in his hiring process, starting by identifying a candidate who shares his political philosophy or views on policy, and then figuring out how the person could fit into his administration.

Perhaps no appointment so encapsulated his intent to shape the mayoralty in his own image as that of Ms. Wiley, a longtime civil rights lawyer, as his counsel.

Ms. Wiley, the daughter of George Wiley, a champion of welfare rights and an early leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, was the founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group.

In an interview, Ms. Wiley said she had never met Mr. de Blasio before the first of their three sit-down sessions at City Hall, each lasting an hour or more.

“My sense was that he had a range of jobs in mind,” she said.

When Mr. de Blasio settled on naming her as his counsel, however, it was with a very different vision for the job. Counsels typically have either close ties to the mayor or long government experience, and have focused on the minutiae of ensuring that what was done in the mayor’s name was done legally, and that legal challenges from the outside are handled properly.

Though Mr. de Blasio said Ms. Wiley would provide legal advice to him, he said her “role is going to involve a lot more.”

“It’s going to involve taking on some of the issues that are core to our agenda and need to be led from City Hall to be effectively achieved,” he said.

Jennifer Jones Austin, who vetted job candidates as a leader of the mayor’s transition team, said Mr. de Blasio was not seeking clones but needed to know that candidates “feel people should be afforded a fair opportunity.”

She added, “You have to feel the same way.”

Ms. Jones Austin is the scion of a family rooted in the civil rights movement and was an administrator under Mayors Bloomberg and Rudolph W. Giuliani. “People were instructed that we wanted competence, and then we wanted progressive and diverse,” she said of the transition team. “You’ve got to be able to manage this city. It is not good enough if everybody has vision but does not have the skill set.”

Peter Ragone, whose ties with Mr. de Blasio date to their days on President Clinton’s 1996 campaign and at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, did not have a specific job description when he was named senior adviser in January.

Richard R. Buery Jr., a former chief executive of the Children’s Aid Society, had the pedigree of a potential agency head. Instead, he was named deputy mayor for strategic policy initiatives — a new position with a focus on shepherding the mayor’s much promoted expansion of prekindergarten education.

Ms. Jones Austin said Mr. Buery helped fill out a roster that includes three other deputy mayors whom she described as more “operational, management.”

Mr. Buery will carry out one of Mr. de Blasio’s campaign promises. The mayor “was interested in making sure the trains were running, but also making sure someone was driving his vision,” Ms. Jones Austin said. Some who support Mr. de Blasio’s aspirations express concerns about his ability to fulfill them.

“He gives people who are part of the have-nots hope,” said Hollie Jones, a professor at Medgar Evers College, who said she was inspired by the mayor’s push for income equality.

“However, right now, it’s a lot of talk. That’s potentially dangerous. He’s going to leave a large group of people disappointed who have already been disenfranchised.”

Mr. Green, who was Mr. Bloomberg’s opponent in the 2001 election, warned that New Yorkers needed “more of a leader and manager than activist and advocate.”

“He’s been preparing for years to run for mayor but not to be mayor,” Mr. Green said. “The most-asked question I get from earnest citizens is, ‘Can he manage the city?’ ”




New York Daily News
De Blasio names Steven Banks commissioner of the Human Resources Administration
By Corinne Lestch
Friday, February 28, 2014

A legal aid attorney who spent 30 years suing City Hall is switching sides and will run an agency he long castigated.

Steven Banks, who has headed the Legal Aid Society for the last decade, will become commissioner of the Human Resources Administration — overseeing billions of dollars in spending for the poor.

“I’ve been waiting my entire professional life to have a mayor who embraced HRA’s mission in the way that this mayor does,” Banks said alongside de Blasio Friday.

The two men were once rivals — Banks, who lives in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, lost to de Blasio in 2001 in the mayor’s first campaign for City Council.

De Blasio lauded his former competitor Friday, saying Banks would bring a fresh perspective to City Hall.

“I admire that Steve has been fighting for what he believes is right,” said de Blasio. “He’s been a voice for the voiceless in this city, and a lot of times he challenged government policies that didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Banks has sued the city over its homeless policies since the mid-80s — assailing the use of welfare hotels and barracks-style shelters in that era, and more recently challenging the Bloomberg administration on a 2011 plan to place tighter restrictions on homeless single adults.

The new regulation would have turned away single adults from city shelters unless they could prove that they had no other housing options.

The state appeals court ruled last year that the plan violated the law.

Advocates for the city’s neediest said the choice of Banks signaled a sea change in mayoral thinking.

“Steve Banks has been a tireless friend to and fierce advocate for New York City’s most vulnerable citizens for decades,” said Mary Brosnahan, president of the Coalition for the Homeless. “In tapping Banks for HRA commissioner, Mayor de Blasio will have one of the great legal minds of a generation and a potent agent of change.”

But experts said it will be a challenge for Banks to make the switch from City Hall critic to insider.

“He’ll have to determine how many degrees of freedom he’s really got managing New York administration,” said Jack Krauskopf of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, a former HRA commissioner during the Koch administration.

Meanwhile, de Blasio said he is “satisfied” with the trickling pace of his appointments.

A number of major posts remain vacant, including fire, parks and correction commissioners.




Politickler
De Blasio Appoints Human Resources and Immigrant Affairs Commissioners
By Jill Colvin
2/28 12:33pm

Bill de Blasio unveiling his latest appointments this afternoon.

Steve Banks, the chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society, has been appointed to lead the city’s Human Resources Administration, and Nisha Agarwal will serve as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this afternoon.

Mr. Banks has lead the organization, which provides free legal service, since 2004. Three years earlier, he ran unsuccessfully against Mr. de Blasio in a City Council race.

Ms. Agarwal, another public interest lawyer, will focus on implementing a new resident identification card system in her new role leading the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Mr. de Blasio said. Mr. de Blasio also reappointed Lorraine Grillo as president of School Construction Authority–a position she’s held since 2010.

“Congratulations to my friend Steve Banks on his appointment to lead HRA!!!,” Tweeted Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma this afternoon. “Struggling families in NY will be in good hands.”

Read the city’s press release below:

WITH THREE APPOINTMENTS, MAYOR DE BLASIO BUILDS OUT LEADERSHIP TEAM DEDICATED TO EXPANDING OPPORTUNITY FOR MORE NEW YORKERS

Nisha Agarwal to lead Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Lorraine Grillo reappointed President of School Construction Authority, Steve Banks to lead Human Resources Administration

NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio today announced three appointments to his administration, building on his promise to create a diverse, progressive and effective government for all New Yorkers.

The mayor appointed Nisha Agarwal as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Lorraine Grillo as President of School Construction Authority—a post she has held since 2010—and Steve Banks as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration.

“These are three great New Yorkers. They are all deeply committed to public service and to lifting up people in need across the five boroughs,” said Mayor de Blasio. “And just as importantly, these are people who get things done. They are energetic, dynamic leaders who are going to move mountains to make life better for working New Yorkers and their families.”

A daughter of Indian immigrants, Nisha Agarwal has deep experience fighting for immigrant communities in New York City. From establishing a nonprofit to recruit legal representation to undocumented immigrants, to drafting the Language Access in Pharmacies Act, to mandating pharmacies to provide interpretation services for speakers of the seven most common languages in the city, Agarwal has innovated new ways to bring immigrant communities out of the shadows. She will be charged with seeing through the de Blasio administration’s immigration agenda, including establishing a municipal ID for undocumented immigrants, improving outreach to immigrant-owned businesses, and ensuring victims of crimes in immigrant communities are fully protected and respected.

“This work is part of who I am. It’s embedded in the values I was taught as a child. Those same values make New York City great. I am committed to Mayor de Blasio’s vision of making New York City the gateway to opportunity for all immigrants,” said incoming Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal.

Lorraine Grillo brings an unmatched level of experience in building New York City schools, having served at the School Construction Authority since 1994, and serving as its president since 2010. She has overseen unprecedented school construction, while effectively responding to emergency situations like Super Storm Sandy. She is committed to planning and construction that reduces class sizes, and supports the expansion of pre-kindergarten to every child and community in New York City.

“It’s no secret: This is my dream job. I love this work because it lays the foundation for everything else we do in education,” said School Construction Authority President Lorraine Grillo. “As a public school parent, I know what this work means to families. Doing it right means smaller class sizes and more opportunity for children. We are committed to investing in new ways to support children in every single community.” Steven Banks, currently Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society, has devoted decades to serving low-income New Yorkers and is a proven change agent in overcoming obstacles that prevent vulnerable people from receiving the help they need. At HRA, Banks will reform the way the city administers its public assistance programs, replacing punitive policies with ones that protect working families and help struggling New Yorkers back up onto their feet.

“We have to make our government work for New Yorkers who need a helping hand – not against them. I am humbled by the opportunity to do so at an agency with a broad scope and impact like HRA, and I look forward to quickly putting Mayor de Blasio’s vision into practice. From making sure that our policies and procedures prevent homelessness rather than cause it, to making sure children and adults have access to food assistance and health care, we will work with the front-line staff to ensure that this agency helps lift up all New Yorkers, in every borough,” said incoming HRA Commissioner Steven Banks.

About Nisha Agarwal

Nisha Agarwal is an accomplished public interest lawyer and a leading voice in immigration reform at the local and national level. She brings to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs an entrepreneurial drive and a proven record of enacting pro-immigrant legislation in New York City and New York State.

Most recently, she worked with Judge Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, to establish the Immigrant Justice Corps, a new nonprofit that will recruit recent law school graduates and partner them with non-profit legal services providers to offer legal representation to undocumented immigrants. She was previously Deputy Director of the Center for Popular Democracy, the groundbreaking non-profit advocacy group dedicated to advancing pro-immigrant, pro-equality and pro-justice policies at the grassroots and national levels, which she co-founded in 2012. Prior to CPD, Agarwal served as Director of the Health Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Agarwal received her B.A. summa cum laude from Harvard College and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

About Lorraine Grillo

Born and raised in Astoria, Queens, Lorraine Grillo has served New York City students at School Construction Authority for two decades. She began as a Community Affairs Specialist in Queens and worked her way up to serving as the President and CEO in 2010.

As SCA President, Grillo managed the agency’s response to Super Storm Sandy, helping to rapidly bring schools in storm-ravaged communities back online. She oversaw the creation of the latest Capital Plan, and has built a track record of on-budget, on-time school openings.

As a manager of one of the city’s largest contracting agencies, Grillo has spearheaded a major expansion of the agency’s outreach to minority and women-owned businesses, ensuring more opportunity for New Yorkers to participate in its projects.

Grillo’s three daughters are all products of New York City public schools. She currently lives in Manhattan.

About Steven Banks

Steven Banks has dedicated his entire career to improving the lives of low-income New Yorkers. One of New York City’s leading public interest lawyers, Banks is currently the Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society, the country’s oldest and largest not-for-profit legal services organization.

At Legal Aid, Banks manages a staff of 1,900 and is responsible for all aspects of the legal practice and operations of the organization’s criminal, juvenile rights, and civil programs in New York City. He is credited with helping reach a landmark settlement with the city in 2008 over its treatment of the homeless, which resulted in the establishment of a permanent enforceable right to shelter for homeless families in New York City. Banks has an extensive track record of working productively with a unionized workforce and helping the city’s most vulnerable residents – including seniors, survivors of domestic violence, immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS – navigate HRA’s programs and services.

In 2004, he became Legal Aid’s Attorney-in-Chief and led the organization through a complete financial and managerial restructuring to save it from bankruptcy. Prior to becoming the Attorney-in-Chief, Banks held the positions of Associate Attorney-in-Chief, Deputy Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice, Coordinating Attorney of the Homeless Rights Project, and Director of Government Relations for the Civil Practice. He began his career at Legal Aid in 1981 as a Staff Attorney in the organization’s Staten Island Neighborhood Office.

He received his B.A. magna cum laude from Brown University in 1978 and his J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1981. He lives in Windsor Terrace with his wife, and they have two adult children.