In an asphalt lot, across from a half-built movie theater on the corner of Dumont Avenue in Brooklyn, City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten beamed over something called the East New York Action Plan, which described itself as “the City’s coordinated effort to build on East New York’s progress.”
Also gathered into one of the city’s poorest–and overwhelmingly Democratic–neighborhoods was a hand-picked audience of 100. There were commissioners munching popcorn provided by the theater’s developer, political boosters from Rudy-friendly District Council 37, the city’s powerful municipal union, and a TV news crew. Or at least what looked like a news crew.
At first glance, the 18-page Action Plan handed out on September 4 was a puzzle. There wasn’t much action. There was even less of a plan.
It was a collection of old news: “The [Health Department] will be instituting a Comprehensive Rodent Control Program.”
Initiatives started by previous administrations: “P.S. 190 has received $18.9 million for modernization.”
Citywide projects long supported by politicians other than Wooten or Giuliani: “Important legislation will enable the [Buildings Department] to serve violations for illegally converting one- two- and three- family homes into illegal apartments.”
And moldy public-private partnerships: “[Business Improvement District] assessments provide for weekend security patrol.”
Walter Campbell, district manager of Community Board 5–and arguably someone who should be included in an important neighborhood action plan–hadn’t been consulted and, truth be told, seemed totally disinterested. “I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet,” said Campbell.
Then six days after the big announcement, the action behind Giuliani’s plan became clear. The document and announcement–written and staged at taxpayer expense–was in fact a campaign commercial. That camera crew had been paid for by “Friends of Rudy Giuliani.”
The camera pans over a huge action plan placard with Wooten’s voice-over: “We’re going to work as partners to bring this city together.” The councilwoman, wearing her signature Sunday straw hat, clutches the plan with one arm and hugs the mayor with the other. Fade to black.
The motivations for producing the commercial were obvious. “He’s sending a message to [minority] voters that he’s not the enemy,” said political consultant Norman Adler.
For Wooten, at the time facing a tough primary challenge from Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who netted important endorsements from the Amsterdam News and the New York Times, the plan was a chance to prove she could deliver to East New York’s needy.
Wooten eventually went on to defeat Barron, 62 to 38 percent. Barron, who decried the mayor’s school and welfare cuts throughout his campaign, was incredulous. “Giuliani, in the past, has devastated our community. Now he has a special plan?”
Wooten said she would “cry racism” in response to any suggestion that the action plan was not a boon to the neighborhood. And she heatedly dismissed criticism that this was simply election-year politics. “I don’t care [about the plan’s timing]. I’m too busy working. If people give gifts at Christmastime, I’ll accept them. If they give them at election-time, I’m elated.”
Yet, a City Limits analysis failed to come up with a single new “gift” in the document. The plan also fails to make up for Giuliani’s deep cuts to education and youth services–which were largely unopposed by Wooten, who is chairperson of the City Council’s Education Committee.
“One of the things that needs action in East New York is education. Wooten has shown absolutely no leadership,” says Sister Kathy Maire, chief organizer for East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC).
The mayor and Wooten used their action plan to tout the expansion of EBC’s much-lauded Nehemiah housing program. However, “Priscilla Wooten was only marginally involved with the East New York Nehemiah projects,” says Lucille Clark, an administrator for EBC, whose leader, Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood was the project’s prime mover. “And she was uninvolved with the earlier Brownsville Nehemiah projects.”
In putting together the action plan, the administration apparently felt no need to deal with EBC or other community groups. According to Planning Department spokesman Bill Bernstein, the document was created by a task force of mayoral higher-ups. They also came up with action plans for Jamaica, Queens and Hunt’s Point in the Bronx.
And what of the plan’s future? That’s not clear, since many of the city officials who supposedly worked on it aren’t even aware of its existence.
“‘Action plan? Action plan?’ You keep saying ‘action plan,'” said a staffer at the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, which coordinates mayoral initiatives in the neighborhoods. “What is an ‘action plan?'”
Glenn Thrush contributed to this story.