Discretionary Items: Show Me The Money
While the investigations go on, the newspapers continue their new-found diligence concerning Council discretionary and other funds, the New York City Council prepares to pass another budget.
The mayor has issued his '09 fiscal year Executive Budget. As required, the Independent Budget Office has issued their analysis and the next and final step before voting on it, is for the New York City Council to negotiate changes with the Mayor and add their traditional piece of "Discretionary Funds" to the budget which takes effect on July 1 of this year.
Hold it one second.
You mean that these 51 members, where many of them have been exposed as irresponsible with public money, several of whom appear to be worse than irresponsible, and at least one who has been part of the practice of putting phony organization names in the City Budget with the intention of hiding funds, are going to go right back and play discretionary money with taxpayer funds again?
Sure, they'll tell you they have new disclosure forms and will tighten things up; there'll be more transparency, and they won't use phantom organizations again. Sure the comptroller has instituted new watchdog procedures; certainly the Mayor's agencies will be more diligent in watching the council monopoly game, but c'mon.
Have they punished or reprimanded one single member? Sure, back at the beginning of Phantomgate, the Speaker fired two staffers who allegedly bore the blame of the phony organization game. Does anyone really believe she didn't know?
If she did, they call it fraud where I come from. Yes, placing the names of phantom organizations in the City budget to conceal money for whatever purpose, should and must be prosecuted. Mayoral candidate, Speaker Christine Quinn has had the key role in overseeing the money the Council spent. Does anyone in this City believe she has done the job adequately?
But she is going to lead the Council in developing the necessary safeguards so they can continue with discretionary items. And just how much "discretionary" money will she control? Does the public feel comfortable that the same guys and gals who did it with our money last time are about to do it again to our money and to us - but this time they promise not to steal.
Out of the "Slushwater" scandal, there has not been one member who has been punished, called to task, referred to the ethics committee, censured, or even criticized by the Council.
Directing money to organizations run by family members, staffers, and political cronies has not been condemned by the body. Members have paid political consultants from Council funds, solicited and accepted campaign contributions from officers of the organizations that have received money, and used these organizations as an extension of their own staffs.
But it's okay, this time they're going to promise not to do it. They will give us safeguards and they'll serve as the watchdogs.
We've heard why they feel discretionary items are necessary and to some degree understand the concept to a very small and limited extent. But City money, in general, should be dispersed on a needs basis, via competitive grants, by professionals and not by a legislative body which has demonstrated to themselves and the people that they are corruptible, irresponsible and incapable - and some are just dishonest.
Do they plan to appoint an independent "inspector general"?
Sure there will be more transparency.
We're going to yell "Slushwater" every time an elected official shows up with a mock four-foot check claiming to be the savior of an organization by giving them money. Hey, it's City money and the group either deserves it or they don't. And councilmembers, you don't deserve contributions or support for kissing up to the Speaker and getting extra bucks for your neighborhood community organization.
We just want to know each time you dole out City money, how it is really going to provide a service to the people of this City.
We wonder how often that is asked and answered, before discretionary items are submitted by Councilmembers.
Oh well, it's time to vote on the budget and carefully screening and evaluating of each organization before submitting their name requires a lot of work and staffs are small and there is an awful lot of money to spend.
All those in favor . . .
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HENRY J. STERN
Every week seems to bring a fresh account of misconduct or abuse by public officials.
Last week, the Daily News looked over the expense accounts of City Council members, which they spend out of the $277,336 they receive each year for staffing and other costs. This sum is in addition to their $112,500 salaries, and an average $10,000 lulu (payment in lieu of expenses for four-fifths of the Council who head committees or subcommittees). That adds up to about $400,000 per year. It does not include central Council staff or OTPS (other than personal services) which brought the Council budget for FY 2008 to $54.6 million.
The story, by Benjamin Lesser and Kathleen Lucadamo, is entitled "Pols' Berserk Perks." It appeared on page 19, so it was not likely to be read by the multitudes who look at the first few pages, and then go to the gossip columns or the extensive sports coverage. Look, that's what most people enjoy in the paper - who cares all that much about the tiresome shenanigans of minor politicians.
DIGRESSION: I heard a related story many years ago which could very well be true, but I have no personal knowledge of it. When James Wechsler was editor and Dorothy Schiff was the owner of the New York Post, there was a dispute over whose articles were more popular, Wechsler's editorials or the paper's regular columns. At the time the Post had two magnificent columnists, Murray Kempton on public affairs and Jimmy Cannon on sports. These men were great writers and if you can find any of their books in print or articles about them on the web, you should read them.
Ms. Schiff was persuaded (which was not easy) to spend some of her money on a survey to find out the most popular column in the Post. The study discovered that it was the daily horoscope that most people read. That is understandable, the rest of the paper tells you what is happening in the present, or what took place in the past. Only the horoscope will tell you the future.
The News article zeroes in on expenses by 11 councilmembers. The worst is Sara Gonzales of Brooklyn, who "topped the charts with $41,923 in consulting fees, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Law" which, in the business, is called FOIL. To politicians, FOIL is a four-letter word, because it mandates disclosure of items they would prefer to keep secret.
The News continues: "Half [of her consulting fees] went to her communications director Michael Schweinsburg, and $11,000 went to Promotional Strategies, a Queens-based campaign consulting agency. Gonzales defended her spending, noting 'I'm very careful.'"
To pay one's campaign expenses with tax dollars is legal if you do it through the public financing boondoggle, in which tax money is sometimes spent to subsidize both runaway victories and hopeless races. However, to take your Council stipend and use it to pay "Promotional Strategies" sounds well over the line. Even officials who claim to be "very careful" can make errors in judgment, which they sometimes foolishly blame on their staffs. You know how hard it is to get decent help nowadays.
Some other expenses listed by the News require further investigation to determine their true value. But for Maria Baez of the Bronx to spend $17,765 on cell phone bills looks to be somewhat over the top. Check to see if they were all local calls. Ms. Baez should be told that there are still such things as land lines. Other purchases seem reasonable.
We believe that some of the expenses described by the News are justified, while other larger items give cause for a high degree of suspicion (maybe between orange and red). The Council needs its own Inspector General, appointed for a fixed term and not removable without good cause, in order to keep an eye on those members who are tempted to dip into funds which they could not remotely earn on their own. And the City's DOI (Department of Investigation) should review councilmembers' expenses, tedious as that may be. Other City employees are subject to mayoral discipline, but, as elected officials, councilmembers will be restrained only by fear of public exposure and the certainty of punishment beyond restitution, perhaps forfeiture of office.
Let it be clear: there are many honest, decent, hardworking councilmembers, while others are lazy, uninterested but not disinterested in issues, and careless with public funds. Strict oversight of all these expenditures is necessary to protect the Council from those who have stumbled onto a gravy train, and want to make the most of it while they sup. Thanks to term limits, they have only eight years to sock it away and take care of their kith and kin. They should not get a free pass on inappropriate expenditures just because our tax money has been allocated to individual members.
Out of experience, we advise you not to stand on one leg until further developments occur. It will also be interesting to see whether any Councilmembers who are not mentioned in the story have anything to say about their colleagues' idiosyncratic behavior. Many are quite prolix, so we might hear something.
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato