Cityview: Pain in the Ask

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New Yorkers who watch NY1 News got to see footage last month of just how far the Giuliani administration will go to prevent public scrutiny of its programs, as well as the kind of threats levied against anyone who dares to question the mayor’s policies.

The cameras were rolling at the April 7 hearing of the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare, which I chair, capturing the new Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner on tape as he stormed out of a duly-scheduled meeting. He was either unwilling or unable to answer questions about his agency’s poor record of moving public assistance recipients from welfare to work.

Much has been written about the incident, which was punctuated by Jake Menges, a top mayoral aide, threatening to kill a planned Beacon School in Councilmember Lloyd Henry’s district. Henry drew the attack because he had the audacity to suggest that the committee subpoena Turner so he would answer our questions. While this was an outrageous abuse of power by the mayor’s staff, we shouldn’t lose sight of a more important issue: The council, on behalf of the public at large, has a right to the facts. Public policy must not be conducted in secret.

The questions that Turner refused to address are not trivial ones. We wanted the specifics of his plan to move thousands of welfare recipients into jobs, how his agency will provide adequate child care for mothers who are forced to take workfare assignments and what evidence he has that HRA has succeeded in these goals thus far.

The City Council not only has the right but the responsibility to call in commissioners for this kind of questioning. In an ideal world, they would appear willingly and be responsive. Unfortunately, when that is not the case, the council must be aggressive in pursuing the options for compelling sworn testimony by commissioners–including the use of our subpoena power. We don’t use this option often: The last time I invoked it was in December 1995 to compel then-Child Welfare Administration Commissioner Kathryn Croft to answer questions about her agency’s handling of abuse complaints in the wake of the tragic death of young Elisa Izquierdo.

Section 29, Chapter 2 of the City Charter states that the council “shall review on a regular and continuous basis the activities of the agencies of the city.” When Turner walked out of a meeting to avoid answering questions from myself and other committee members, he prevented the council from doing its job. After he left, the administration launched into a spin frenzy, saying I had been “abusive” and that the “mistreatment” of Turner justified his departure.

That mischaracterization of my behavior is nothing more than an attempt to distract attention from the fact that Turner refused to give detailed answers about HRA policy before the committee. The commissioner’s walk-out was just another example of the Giuliani administration’s refusal to provide basic programmatic information to the public. Just look at the number of elected officials and news organizations who have been forced to sue the city for access to public information.

Our job is to ask tough questions that lead to detailed answers rather than vague comments. We must stand up to anyone–including the mayor and his commissioners–who tries to stonewall or manipulate the flow of facts that needs to be available to the public. So how do you get the city to be more responsive?

The charter gives the council subpoena power. As the council continues to strengthen its role in city government, we need to be more willing to use this authority.

Perhaps the powers we currently have in this regard aren’t enough to do the job. I would support amending the City Charter so that the council could sanction commissioners who fail to appear at committee meetings or refuse to share information about activities and progress in their agencies, much the same way that Congress can sanction unresponsive witnesses with a contempt citation or fines.

The week following Turner’s decision to leave my committee hearing, the New York Times ran a series of front-page articles describing the failures of the very program we had sought to investigate. Turner and City Hall, as it turned out, were as reluctant to answer the Times inquiries as they were to answer mine. As each of the articles appeared, it seemed increasingly clear that Turner had been less disturbed by the loudness of my voice than by the documented failure of his own administration to move people from welfare to jobs.

Whatever the case, the commissioner can be sure that the General Welfare Committee still has a lot of questions for him when he returns, whether he comes willingly or by the force of subpoena.

Stephen DiBrienza of Brooklyn is chairman of the New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee.