What Hath Betsy Wought?
Yesterday, Councilmember Simcha Felder submitted Intro 1046, a bill to abolish the Public Advocate's office. I personally find it a disgusting, pathetic attack on an office that could do so much good for New York City.
I also find it the natural result of eight years of incompetence and inaction on the part of the current Public Advocate. Four years ago, Betsy Gotbaum actually insisted in a campaign debate that she was doing everything the Public Advocate is supposed to do. The fact is, this was a narrow view of the office. The City Charter provides that the Public Advocate "shall" do things such as receive complaints from individuals and monitor complaints received by agencies around the city, and she has done some of that.
But the Charter also says the Public Advocate "may review the programs of city agencies." (Emphasis mine.) She didn't do that in her first term, and has done precious little of it in her second term. Clearly, she stands on the difference between "shall" (meaning "must") and "may" (meaning "I don't have to") -- and that's the problem.
We need to amend the City Charter, but the amendment shouldn't eliminate the Public Advocate's office. Instead, the amendment should require the Public Advocate to do the whole job. It should also ensure that the Public Advocate's office is well-funded, and that the funding level isn't decided by those whom the Public Advocate most needs to investigate -- namely, the City Council and the Mayor.
Unfortunately, Betsy Gotbaum has done so little to make the Public Advocate's office stand out that many New Yorkers truly believe it has no purpose. The office has a purpose, of course, and an active Public Advocate will fulfill that purpose in a great way. Part of that purpose is serving as a check on the Mayor in a way that even the City Comptroller cannot do. The Comptroller can only "follow the money," whereas the Public Advocate can follow all the procedures of every agency.
Naturally, such an active Public Advocate would be a real thorn in the side of a Mayor and a Council Speaker -- and especially this Mayor, who seems to feel that he is, naturally, always right, and anyone who would question him is "a disgrace." Unfortunately, throughout Michael Bloomberg's tenure we have been saddled with someone in the Public Advocate's chair who either doesn't understand or doesn't care what the full measure of the job entails.
Thanks to Betsy Gotbaum, Mayor Bloomberg and many City Council members have gotten away with all sorts of shenanigans. For instance:
The public money spent on two new baseball stadiums was a complete waste -- no new permanent jobs have been created, and no significant new sources of revenue have been created to pay for the cost.
The rezonings of (among others) Long Island City and Williamsburg, and the proposed Atlantic Yards project, are completely destroying the character of the neighborhoods, while providing no significant sources of affordable housing. In the case of Long Island City, there are practically no new jobs being created, no new mass transit, no new schools (some are supposedly planned, but not being built), no addition to an already overtaxed police precinct, no new firehouses, etc., etc. -- in short, lots of high-rise, luxury housing and virtually nothing else.
The congestion pricing scheme that Mayor Bloomberg tried to shove down our throats -- and almost succeeded in doing. This was a hotly debated issue, and certainly the Mayor's plan had some merit to it, but there are a lot of other possibilities, none of which were really discussed, because a) Mayor Bloomberg didn't want to, and b) nobody else in power stood up to offer an alternative. As a result, we have nothing.
The same scenario was true with the proposed west side stadium. While plenty of people opposed the Mayor (including, to her credit, Betsy Gotbaum), nobody in power offered an alternative -- and there were several alternatives available.
Where was the Public Advocate when hundreds of people were illegally arrested and illegally detained for two or three days during the Republican National Convention? Why didn't she investigate police procedures -- not to look for criminal activities, but to help find a set of procedures to handle large crowds of protesters in a more peaceful, positive way? We don't have any such procedures, and we need them in place before a similar situation arises.
Even when the Public Advocate has stood up, she has been amazingly ineffective -- her opposition to extending term limits garnered exactly no support. Perhaps if she had been active for seven years, she might have been able to convince a few Council members to vote against such an undemocratic (make that "un-American") act. But nobody paid attention to her, because she spent seven years not accomplishing anything worthy of our attention.
Now people want to get rid of the office. Pathetic!
For another take on this topic, check out the post at Joshing Politics.