Yassky: A Reformer For Comptroller
We're in the heat of the '08 election season and the '09 citywide elections are already taking shape. The City Council "Slushwater Scandal" - the concealing of discretionary funds in the name of fictitious organizations and the questionable and corrupt use of discretionary funds for personal and political purposes - has seemingly removed Speaker Quinn from the mayoral race and may just help alter the dynamics of the race for comptroller.
Comptroller candidate, Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky came to the Trib last Friday; it was the first time I met him. I've known him however, by reputation, as a highly intelligent legislator who was named one of the top 100 New Democrats to watch nationwide by the Democratic Leadership Council in D.C.
With at least two Queens councilmembers, and possibly a third, actively in the comptroller mix, I had friends who I liked for the office. But I am open-minded and always am available to candidates who may impact the future of our borough.
The hour-and-a-half chat revealed David to be a reform-minded, good government leader who is likely to be a player on the public service scene for years to come. I was impressed by his sincerity, intellect and commitment to the things that are right for the people. This guy should be from Queens. (Longtime readers may recognize that as just about the highest level of compliment that can be found in this column).
The Yale Law School grad who worked for Chuck Schumer - you don't get better training anywhere in the game - drove himself to our office. He would rather have staffers working than driving him around, he explained. He made 10 stops over the past weekend and this hard-working, driven, progressive would bring to the comptroller's office a unique blend of the pragmatic know-how he has demonstrated in the council combined with a reputation for integrity and an understanding of the fiscal intricacies of our city.
On top of that, David acknowledged: "Queens has better diners than Brooklyn."
He is personable, quick, thoughtful and certainly right on his gastronomical judgment.
He also is clearly different than most of the present councilcmembers when it comes to reform in face of the present council financial scandal:
"Anybody who knew there was a fictitious name in City budget should be prosecuted."
"Earmarks (discretionary funds) should be done away with almost entirely, except smaller projects such as little leagues, free movies in park etc., little things like that."
"I have worried that if I go too far on an issue, does that mean little league, meals on wheels are gonna suffer, and is that a fair thing for me to do? It is an incomplete view if you don't think that's something someone in my position should ask himself."
"The corrupting nature of earmarks goes beyond the complicit coercion of important civic leaders in district. I get that. But other part of corruptive nature is there has been an unspoken bargain between the mayor and council, or controller. The Council gets to dole out $50-60 million - which turns out is $170 mil - and the mayor doesn't question and comptroller doesn't question it. That bargain doesn't work for public."
"But she [Quinn] came out and said all money the speaker has been allocating should have been done with competitive grants. I thought that was absolutely the right thing to do. Was gutsy. I think she tried to do the right thing. If we've done $170 million in pork, we could take $168 million of it and dispense it via competitive grants. Three people [in the Council], including me, were for it - 48 were outraged. That thought initially was appalling.
"When I'm comptroller, I will audit earmark grants to make sure money is being spent for public purpose.
David and I were in quick agreement as he declared: "We need systemic changes." We also concurred, "Albany is worse than ever."
I asked, "Is there something that can make people believe you are different?"
Yassky responded: "In a word, results. Affordable housing, environment, jobs - get the results. There are lot of elements of change. Good intentions are fine, but you've got to have results at the end of day."
He cited his work achieving on the north Brooklyn rezoning, 20 percent affordable apartments in the buildings to be built; getting a bill passed that will convert the City's taxicab fleet to fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles by 2012; and his Film Industry Job Creation Act which generated 3,000 new City jobs in the industry.
As we looked to the future, Yassky worries that lots of neighborhoods aren't affordable anymore. He doesn't think it is healthy for the city to be off limits to all but the super rich.
"I worry whether political leadership can deal long term in ways the mayor has tried to do. The Bloomberg approach is something I like a lot. He's now the gold standard.
"I am optimistic and hopeful." he continued. "Look at what's going on in Flatbush, where dangerous blocks 15 years ago are now gorgeous blocks built by immigrants. It's not something 20 years ago, someone would have predicted.
"We do continue to attract people with energy, entrepreneurs, grit and determination, that makes people able to succeed. The basic fundamentals to stay finance capital of world are strong but need to be protected. Our creative community and economy . . . those remain real strengths."
What else should the Queens Tribune readers know about you?
"Your readers want a comptroller who's going to give taxpayers the most for their dollar in city government. I'm gonna do that."
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To Drain Slushwater
HENRY J. STERN
Hey, wait a minute.
Are they all crooks?
Tuesday, we wrote "Slushwater Percolates Along", reporting on the simmering dispute among Councilmembers on the issue of their discretionary funds (member items, in Albany; earmarks, in Washington). It turns out that substantial sums were laundered through fictitious organizations, other money was simply embezzled (the old-fashioned way) and some went to groups whose only defense is that they have no records.
Last week, Speaker Christine Quinn announced what she called "a comprehensive overhaul of Council budget practices." We looked for the press release and found one dated April 11. That was the agreement that got her into trouble with her members, because it ceded to the mayor much of what little discretion the council has.
The new (May 7) rules are sensible and, if they are followed, many of the abuses that have taken place will be curbed. The problem will continue to be one of dealing with people who have a different set of moral standards, and who will use any loophole they can find to pry funds from the city treasury for the benefit of those who are near and dear to them.
The release begins: "City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, together with the City Council's 27-member Budget Working Group, today released several major changes to the council's current budget allocation process. These extensive and unparalleled budgetary practices significantly raise existing standards for legislative fiscal practices through strengthening governmental transparency and accountability."
"This set of practices:
1) Increasing pre-clearance requirements for organizations requesting discretionary or initiative based funding (BTW, they say 'increasing', we wonder how many pre-clearance requirements there were).
2) Heightening disclosure requirements for organizations requesting local, discretionary or initiative-based funding (BTW, again, how tall were the old requirements?).
3) Instituting safeguards for the use of fiscal conduits; (You could call this the clean laundering act, but it is actually a good rule).
4) Broadening data included in budgetary documents such as Schedule C, as well as making data electronically accessible; and
5) Appointing an Independent Council Compliance Officer, as well as a Deputy Compliance Officer within the City Council's Division of Finance."
We ask, how independent can this wo/man be if s/he reports to the speaker and the general counsel, an appointee of the speaker? For genuine independence, this person should have a fixed term, be able to appoint staff, and be removable only for cause, which would have to be proven before a panel of justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
In the interest of providing you with the most complete information, we called the Council to find out who were the 27 members of the Budget Working Group, an entity whose existence was revealed in the headline and first sentence of the press release. On our second call, we were told that the group is fluid, with others joining or leaving, so at the moment the identity of the membership could not be announced. Although that is scarcely the pinnacle of transparency, we do note that 27 is one more than half the membership of the Council, which is 51. Ms. Quinn at this time has enough support to stave off the regicides, which is just. It would be shameful if she were to lose her job for the sins of her members, although her performance hardly qualifies her to seek a much more demanding public office.
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato