Does the Public Deserve An Advocate?

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, May 13, 2010  |  Updated 5:45 PM EDT
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Does the Public Deserve An Advocate?

AP

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum in happier times in 2002.

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Mayor Bloomberg is a man who knows how to hold a grudge.

He obviously doesn’t like former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and, although she’s been out of office for five months, he’s still taking shots at her. Why? It’s hard to say.

The Mayor slashed the budget of the Public Advocate down to the bone during Gotbaum’s term. He made clear he didn’t think the office served a useful purpose and he thought Gotbaum did a poor job. But, finally, he indicated that the office should be abolished.

Now, he’s cutting the budget of the office again. And he wants the Charter Revision Commission to decide whether the office should be continued or abolished. Taking a swipe at Gotbaum, he says: “Some times I think the public advocate -- particularly the way it was run in the past -- did not give us great value added.”

Gotbaum is a lady. She’s slightly bewildered by the never-ending venom from City Hall. But she is gentle in her response. “Why is he still going after me?" she asked me.  "I find it hard to understand.”

Gotbaum’s former chief of staff, Anat Gerstein, is not so restrained. She says: “He thinks he’s so powerful he can do whatever he pleases. Being the wealthiest man in New York he has silenced a lot of people. He didn’t silence Betsy, although she has been a constructive critic.

“The Mayor is a bully.”

She has a point. The history of New York City did not begin when Bloomberg entered City Hall in 2002. The idea of a public advocate goes back to 1831, when New York was five separate boroughs. The function had different names through the 19th and 20th centuries. But the purpose, according to the Gotham Gazette, was always to be a kind of critic at large of the executive branch of government.

 In 1975, the charter commission decided to give the City Council President a “quasi-ombudsman” role. The ombudsman is a Swedish concept -- a person who acts as a go-between -- protecting the people from the evils of bureaucracy.

Bloomberg, a self-made multi-billionaire, is not used to people looking over his shoulder and critiquing his actions. He runs the city government as though he were the CEO, which he is. But democracy doesn’t seem to be in his DNA, nor tolerance for critics.

Even as he continues to cut the budget of this tiny office, the Mayor has kind words for the new public advocate, Bill de Blasio, whom he calls “a very smart guy.”

Yet the Mayor is not giving de Blasio enough money to hire a staff large enough to get meaningful work done. So, go figure what Bloomberg is up to. What’s clear is he doesn’t like to be second-guessed. He acts more like an emperor than a mayor.

The new public advocate, Bill de Blasio, has been called “the watch dog” over city government. From a financial standpoint, he’s a pretty emaciated watchdog. In just two years, the budget of this office has been cut from 3 million a year to 1.5 million.

“Since the City Charter established this office,” de Blasio says, “ you can’t starve it out of existence.”

On the budget issue, he hopes the Mayor will keep his word and look for “a productive compromise.”.

Betsy Gotbaum says simply: “I’m perplexed. First he cuts the budget to smithereens. Then he blames me for not accomplishing more.”

The former public advocate says she’s proud of having helped people solve their problems over the years, including: tracking down a mistake the city government made that was driving up waterbills precipitously; putting out an immigrant guide in seven languages; simplifying the applications for food stamps and piloting a commission on school governance.

Gotbaum’s husband, Victor, was one of the giants of labor who helped save the city from bankruptcy in the 70s. He says of his wife’s efforts to retain employees after Bloomberg slashed her budget: “This guy just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand the government or the people who work for it.

"He bought his way up to the top. He never earned it. To win office he bought people by the bushel.”

 We live in an era when people are deeply distrustful of government. To deliberately starve the agency that’s supposed to be a watdchdog over government operations seems to disregard the public interest.

 The public needs an advocate. Whether Bloomberg believes in the office or not, it’s clear that, in a system of checks and balances, the Public Advocate should play a vital part.

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