New York City owes its revival over the last quarter century to many things, but perhaps the least recognized is a change made in 1989 to the city’s governing charter that enormously strengthened the clout of the mayor’s office. That change helped New York, under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, shed much of its reputation as an “ungovernable” city.
But the reform didn’t solve everything. Since then, both mayors have appointed charter-revision commissions to recommend further reforms, which voters have generally approved. The next mayor should continue their legacy, appointing commissions to examine two reforms: redefining or abolishing the office of public advocate, and overhauling the City Council’s discretionary-funding system.
Today, the public advocate is one of just three citywide elected offices, the other two being mayor and comptroller. The advocate remains second in line to the mayor, and he serves on or appoints members to various boards and commissions. He also presides over City Council meetings and can initiate legislation, though he holds no vote. But oversight is his chief responsibility; the position is often described as the city’s “ombudsman.”
The mission is so broad that it renders the public advocate’s responsibilities completely open to definition. Bill de Blasio, the job’s current occupant, has lobbied Wall Street to disinvest from gun makers, has lobbied car companies to disinvest from Iran, has lent support to New York state’s ban on fracking, and has launched a website devoted to exposing Wal-Mart’s political spending practices—in addition to supporting union and other left-liberal causes already amply covered by countless other advocates in and out of New York City government. Because the advocate has no ability to implement new laws or policies, success tends to be measured in terms of inputs—complaints fielded, reports issued, pieces of legislation filed, media hits.
No other American city has an independently elected ombudsman; it may even be unprecedented worldwide. The true purpose of the office seems to be political. Since assuming its current form in 1975, it has served as a springboard for the mayoral ambitions of four out of six occupants. And all six had backgrounds in government, as do the three leading candidates for the spot in 2013, belying the claim that the job opens city government to outsiders.
In fiscal year 2013, the office will cost taxpayers $3.2 million. In competitive election years, the cost can rise to millions more as the city’s campaign-finance program matches the funds that candidates for the office raise.
And the public advocate’s job isn’t just expensive—it’s redundant. Watchdogs already presiding over New York City government include the city’s Independent Budget Office, the Department of Investigation, the City Council’s 43 standing committees and subcommittees, and, in the private sector, the media and such organizations as Citizens Union. Other providers of constituent services include the city’s community boards, the 51 City Council members’ offices, the borough presidents, and the city’s 311 program.
If an office has no useful role and can be eliminated without injury to the public, it should be. At the very least, the position should be changed from an elective office to an appointed one, a modification considered in 1989. Watchdogs, after all, should be above politics.
City Council ‘Member Items‘
In the last decade alone, dozens of state and city officials have left office on account of wrongdoing, proved or alleged. Charter revision could address corruption by reforming the City Council’s discretionary-funding system and particularly the so-called member items—funds that individual council members distribute to nonprofit organizations of their choice. Also known as “earmarks” or “slush funds,” member items have proved an irresistible source of graft and abuse.
The City Council formally has the authority to review, modify, and approve New York’s budget. But in practice, it exercises direct control over a sum amounting to less than 1 percent of the total. In fiscal year 2012, that sum came to $579 million, a budget-within-the-budget that the mayor set aside for the council to use at its discretion.
The council as a whole distributes about half of this discretionary funding; the other half, which individual council members distribute, constitutes the earmarks or member items. No formula determines the way the funding is distributed among the 51 council members, but it’s well understood that the city council speaker uses the items to enforce discipline. Favored members may receive nearly seven times as much as their peers.
That member items encourage graft is evident from recent city corruption cases. In 2012, Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook’s three-decadelong career in public office ended when he was convicted of steering over $1 million in member items to nonprofits controlled by him and staffed by his mistress, family members, and friends.
Two aides to former Brooklyn city Councilman Kendall Stewart pled guilty to a similar scheme, embezzling almost $200,000 by directing member-item funds to nonprofits that they controlled. Miguel Martinez, a council member from upper Manhattan, admitted in 2009 to several corruption charges, including receiving $20,000 in payments from a nonprofit children’s art center to which he had directed over $150,000 in discretionary spending.
Others have used member items for political purposes. In 2012, Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat, pled guilty to appropriating over $100,000 in member-item funds to his 2006 campaign for the state Senate. The funds went to a nonprofit that Monserrate controlled and were used to gather signatures, conduct voter-registration drives, and perform other political work on his behalf.
A few ambitious city council members have used member items for both fraud and graft. When state Sen. Malcolm Smith was revealed this past April to have attempted to secure the Republican nomination for mayor through bribery, it came to light that the city councilman with whom he had colluded, Dan Halloran of Queens, had taken $25,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a real estate developer and promised to steer $80,000 in member-item funds to a company controlled by the supposed developer.
Taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite the city council’s political activities, especially in a time of such limited resources. If an outright ban on member items seems impractical, the discretionary-funding system could be slightly reformed by allocating disbursements equally among all 51 council members or in accord with a predetermined formula.
The next mayor’s state-mandated authority to appoint a charter-revision commission provides an effective way to continue improving New York’s government. Reforming the public advocate’s office and city council members’ member items would be sensible next steps.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership. This article was adapted from City Journal’s special issue, “After Bloomberg: An Agenda for New York.”