Council Speakers: When Will They Ever Learn?
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Okay, my outrage is just beginning.
It is a long path until next year’s election – we’re not even through this one. But when City money is used to bolster the candidacy of one Mayoral hopeful, I get angry.
As I sat down to write this column at a little after 2 p.m. this past Sunday, the TV was on channel 2 (CBS) and my mother-in-law was watching “Food, Faith & Culture,” an interesting show on the diversity of New York – with Queens-specific scenes — highlighting the role of food in Sikhism, Islam and Judaism. Yummy.
The Giants weren’t on until nighttime and the Jets could wait until the second half.
The show, the Queens scenes and the food held my interest until around 2:20 p.m. when a “Diversity” commercial was aired. “Hello, this is Council Speaker Christine Quinn” or something like that said the recognizable voice of the council boss and Mayoral wanabe. It was a 30-second, multi-cultural lovefest with terrible production values – as bad as you ever see on network television. But the message of “Love Love” and “Hate Hate” is of course a seller in our great city. At the end of the painfully bad commercial with a solidly good message, was the City’s logo (NYC) taking ownership for the spot.
The Speaker of the City Council was elected by one district out of 51 in the city. She represents 1/51 of our population. She is not our public spokesperson, the Mayor is. She is not to be lavished with promotional funds to spread her name around our city. She should not be the beneficiary of taxpayer funds or City-owned property to elevate her image as she prepares to run for Mayor. Not on our backs, Chris.
Eleven years ago, Queens’ Peter Vallone Sr., then Speaker of the Council, showed up at my office as a Mayoral candidate with more than a half a dozen city staffers – besides a driver. I challenged the use of City resources on a campaign stop. Vallone asserted his right. I opposed him. The people rejected his candidacy – he finished third in a field of four and did not make the run-off.
Mike Bloomberg ultimately beat Mark Green who beat Fernando Ferrer in a runoff – how quickly we forget.
In 2005, four years later, the story was somewhat the same. Then Council Speaker, Gifford Miller, had used the council mailing budget to put his name and face in the mailboxes of almost the entire city. He caught it from me and many others in the press. The people agreed and Giff finished a poor fourth in a field of 4 (Ferrer, Weiner, Fields, Miller). In the General Election, Bloomberg beat Ferrer again.
Now, we have the third Speaker in a row running for Mayor. She too apparently thinks it’s okay to use City resources to try to get elected. There is still plenty of time for her to recognize she was wrong in using City money to put her name and voice on a TV commercial. She can apologize, reimburse the city and pledge to only use campaign funds outside of her district.
In a competent field which includes former Comptroller Bill Thompson, Public Advocate, Bill DiBlasio, Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Beep Scott Stringer and newspaper publisher Tom Allon, we have lots of choices.
Anyone using City funds to further their campaign deserves your disdain.
They have ours.
Reform An Elusive Goal, Can Legislature Cure Itself?
By HENRY STERN
The issue of ethics reform in Albany has bounced around for several years. Everyone is supposed to favor it, but somehow it never happens.
The controversy caught fire in 2006 when the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with New York University School of Law, was said to have concluded that New York State had the most dysfunctional legislature in the country.
Although it cannot be stated with certainty that New York State’s legislature is the worst of the 50, and there may be several rivals for that title who are even more deficient in particular areas, it is generally known that New York is close to the bottom, which is a pathetic location for the Empire State, whose motto is excelsior.
Our governance is unsatisfactory in areas that go beyond the personal corruption of public officials. There is an institutional standoff in the bicameral legislature. The gerrymandered houses are dominated by their leaders, who make decisions on issues which are important to them. Individual legislators are forced to toe the party line, under threat of budgetary reprisals and political isolation.
“Reform” proposals are made periodically and good government groups often rate legislators on their responses to these initiatives. Some measures will sometimes pass one house or another, but the track record on laws approved by both houses and signed by the governor is meager. The politicians have found a way to appear to support reform without risking any privileges and prerogatives that they might lose if reforms were to be enacted. Legislators, who generally behave like other people, not much better and not worse, cannot be relied upon to voluntarily limit their own authority. Rattling the bars of their cages in Albany is unlikely to induce any leopards to change their spots, or any lions to lie down with lambs.
In a political universe, the way to achieve change is to elect people who are committed to it, and to watch them like hawks to see that they do not retrogress or submit to the rule of the power brokers who have run the store for decades.
An attempt at such oversight occurred in 2011 as a result of Governor Cuomo’s stated desire to turn around state government. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics was established through the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011. The commission has the authority to oversee and investigate the legislative and executive branches along with lobbying entities in matters of ethics and disclosure. Many consider the rules governing its decision making process to be overly inhibitive, due to the nearly unanimous voting requirements for launching an investigation. After its first meeting regarding a matter of investigation, The Governor mentioned the possibility of creating another panel in order to make sure that the scope of the probe was appropriately broad.
It will take coalitions of like-minded individuals and organizations to change Albany’s ways. It will take years, and there will be disappointments and defeats along the way. Individuals you have helped elect may turn out to be unstable, ineffective or malleable.
Nonetheless, the struggle must continue. If we give up, the public sector may deteriorate further due to a lack of citizen participation and oversight. We live in a competitive world, with other nations, states and provinces vying for our assets and resources.
We are not accusing people of evil designs, although that locution applies to a few. The problem is that the current course of self-serving conduct is accepting a situation that is unsustainable. The sooner New York recognizes this, the easier it will be to change course.
Governor Cuomo is the key player here. What he does in the next two years will impact both the future of the state and his own prospects for advancement. His election and his first twenty months have given us hope, but the disappointments we suffered under his predecessors make our reading of the future guarded. How long will the governor stick to his professed ideals? And what will happen if he feels compelled to yield on one point or on many? And what will be the effect of next year’s mayoral election on the city-state dynamic? Sadly, time is not our friend.