NEW YORK CIVIC: Mid-Term Review By HENRY J. STERN
NEW YORK, NY -- July 9,2012 -- Mayor Bloomberg has now completed seven-eighths of the twelve years he will presumably serve as mayor. In 541 days New York City's next mayor, the 109th, will be inaugurated. During the next 18 months there will likely be a trickle of departures as commissioners and senior managers seek employment which will last beyond December 31, 2013. It is a weakness in our political system that when there is a change of mayors practically all commissioners and senior officials currently serving are expected to leave regardless of how well they have performed their jobs. Imagine a corporation which, every four years, routinely discharged its principal officers. This practice did not start with Mayor Bloomberg. It was the rule in the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations as well.
One effect of the revolving door system is that competent managers tend to leave government before their mayor's term ends because they need time to find jobs so they can feed their families and educate their children. No one wants to be the last man or woman out the door. Nor is it comfortable to watch on'’s colleagues being replaced by people selected to pay political debts and without regard to merit and fitness.
On the other hand, new commissioners may be well more effective than their predecessors; they may be unencumbered by sad experience and years of frustration. The new team should reflect the thinking and values of the newly elected or re-elected mayor so they can carry out his or her programs for the city. And the outgoing commissioners can use the skills they gained on the job when they return to the lucrative positions in the private sector they gave up to perform public service.
A high-level government employee usually serves at the pleasure of the person who hired him or her. The typical frame of reference is the four year terms to which city officials are elected. Appointment by Mayor Bloomberg, however, can last a lifetime if the employee behaves properly, performs competently and remembers who selected him or her for the position. This mayor has enough ties to the business, real estate and technology communities that people he recommends can continue on career ladders outside government. To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg does not change his appointees for cosmetic reasons or because a loyal commissioner is unpopular with an interest group.
In the last year of the Lindsay administration we all knew that our stay at City Hall would soon be over. In the last year of the Bloomberg administration more people who have served him in the past are likely to continue their association in one way or another.
It is generally believed that the city has had an honest, decent and relatively efficient administration. The wrongdoing that took place was investigated once the administration learned of it. A handful of people who left for ethical reasons departed quietly and the deficiencies found were corrected.
The singularity of this administration is due in large part to the mayor's enormous personal wealth. A multi-billionaire is not just an ordinary person who happens to possess billions of dollars. His behavior and his attitude are shaped by his great wealth as well as the nature of the people with whom he surrounds himself. He is uniquely positioned to create a cadre of loyal and effective managers who will do their best to carry out his wishes. The City Government and nonprofit worlds provide an ample canvas on which they can work.
The mayor is not immune to the actions and positions of other public officials. The Governor, the leaders of the State Legislature, and even the City Council have weight in affecting his judgments. Legally, any city is a creature of the state. This country is named The United States of America for a reason. Eliot Spitzer's downfall, for example, was not only due to his shameful personal behavior but to the fact that he had antagonized every public official with whom he dealt. So when judgment day arrived for him not a soul would come to his rescue. That would probably not be the case if Governor Cuomo or Mayor Bloomberg were similarly imperiled.
There are numerous issues for government to decide. Financial: balancing a budget of billions of dollars, social: delivery of health care and social benefits, campaign finance, law enforcement and due process, infrastructure, transportation and environmental standards. State government has a menu of concerns as broad as the federal government's except without the money and the wars. At this time there is public confidence that both the state and the city are being run reasonably. If not, inspiringly.
One aspect of writing at a column on public questions is that one is more likely to write when there is a problem with public policy and the usual state of affairs is unsatisfactory. Criticism is often focused on the chief of state. One may easily get the impression that conditions are worse than they are and that government officials are less competent and effective than they are. In reality, some are deficient in performance but most are honest and faithful.
At the same time, government frustrates the press who can see more clearly and express more vividly the way things ought to be done. At its best, the constant tension with the media strengthens both sides in a dialogue as happened to President Truman. His reputation improved over the years. We try to be as constructive as possible. But when outrages take place such as criminality, immorality, waste and spoliation of resources and the denial of equal opportunity, ballot access or a level playing field, we take vigorous exception to those conditions and we feel obligated to say so. History will judge Mayor Bloomberg as one of the city's best mayors. Even the most egregious act of the Bloomberg administration, the changing of term limits, which we strongly opposed, turned out not to have done existential damage to the city.
We have one firm belief at this time: the next mayor will not be as good as this one. But the city's problems are so great, that even a good mayor may not be enough to deal with them.
The rule of law is one man, one vote. A billionaire does not enter a political contest with a billion votes. But his wealth enables him to hire talent and organize a campaign which, if successful, would confer upon him enormous power and prestige. And it did.
What is the point of not being in an administration if one is not free to speak his or her mind?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.