Second In Command: Gotbaum Looks Back

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From her perch on the 15th floor of the Municipal Building, New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum oversees City Hall. Literally. A wall of windows allows her to look down upon the mayor and City Council’s headquarters across the street.

The questions Gotbaum is trying to answer these days, however, aren’t about the view. One question is whether in her nearly two terms in office as the city’s elected watchdog, she has done enough of the other kind of oversight—of city officials, agencies, programs and policies—that the public advocate is supposed to do. Another question is whether, given the public advocate’s limited powers and budget, the office is truly capable of performing that watchdog role.

Gotbaum has geared up to answer both the broader question and her own critics. Her staff has prepared a Power Point briefing on her accomplishments and the challenges she’s faced. She’s presented it in individual meetings with the men running to succeed her. As she meets with a reporter, she’s armed with that slideshow as well as a typed set of notes on topics like “What I’m working on for the rest of the year.”

But as Gotbaum works through her final months, the office she holds is approaching a crossroads after nearly 16 years in existence. Its staff and budget are roughly half what they were in 1993, its powers are fewer and its media profile has shrunk. Despite these trends, a large field of candidates has assembled to try to succeed Gotbaum, including former Public Advocate Mark Green running for his old job, civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel seeking the post for a third time, Queens City Councilman Eric Gioia and Brooklyn City Councilman Bill de Blasio.

The prize those candidates are aiming for could change almost as soon as it’s in the winner’s grasp: A charter revision commission likely to be launched in 2010 will probably consider the perennial question of whether New York City needs a public advocate and, if so, what its role should be. Theoretically, the next public advocate could see his office disappear or his authority expand—with both scenarios affecting the balance of power in a city that is likely to have in place a powerful third-term mayor countered only by a cooperative City Council.

The conversation about who, if anyone, should be the next public advocate is unique to New York City, which is believed to be the only place in the world with a popularly-elected ombudsman.

The evolution of the office

“Public advocate” is actually a new name for an office older than the modern city. Its earliest ancestor was the president of the Board of Aldermen—a citywide, popularly elected post that dates to 1831. When the five boroughs consolidated in 1898, the president of the Board of Aldermen (a body that passed laws) got a seat on the Board of Estimate (a more powerful mini-legislature that dominated budget and land use decisions) where he had voting power equal to the mayor and comptroller, who each had two votes compared to one apiece for the borough presidents. When the Board of Aldermen became the City Council in 1936, the president’s title changed accordingly, and the post gained the power to break tie votes in the Council.

The city decided to revise the charter once more in 1975, and some wanted to get rid of the president’s post. But an opposing faction sought instead to strengthen the office to become a vehicle for citizen complaints about government, and it prevailed. The City Council president was given limited powers to review how city agencies handled citizen complaints, but the people who held the office during and after this charter change expanded the role to include collecting their own citizen complaints and investigating systemic problems.

The office’s authority began to shrink, however, in 1989, when the charter was reformed to eliminate the Board of Estimate, and with it the City Council president’s ability to vote on the budget and land use decisions—the office’s most significant power. As in 1975, there were calls to eliminate the City Council president as well. The argument had a powerful opponent. “If it wasn’t for Andy Stein,” says former Council leader Peter Vallone, Sr., “there would be no office at all.” The incumbent Council President, Andrew Stein—who had aspirations of becoming mayor —argued forcefully for its survival, noting the tens of thousands of complaints that he had handled. He was joined by charter commission members who wanted a high-profile check on the power of the mayor with the backing of a citywide constituency.

The office was saved. But per Vallone’s complaint that the label made it unclear whether he – then called the Vice Chairman of the Council even though he was in charge, and there was no Chairman – or the City Council president ran the City Council, the office was renamed before the 1993 election. “Provost,” “chamberlain” and “ombudsman” were all considered. “Public advocate” won, and Vallone became “speaker.”

Wrestling from day one

The public advocate is second in the line of succession after the mayor, meaning the advocate would take over the mayoralty on an interim basis if a vacancy arose. The advocate presides over the biweekly full meetings of the City Council, can participate in Council discussions and introduce legislation, and is a member ex officio of all Council committees. He or she sits on the board of the city’s main pension fund, appoints a member of the Planning Commission and chairs the Commission on Public Information and Communication.
But according to the charter (p. 13-18), the heart of the advocate’s job is to “review complaints of a recurring and multiborough or city-wide nature relating to services and programs, and make proposals to improve the city’s response to such complaints,” receive and try to address individual complaints, monitor how city agencies handle the complaints they receive, and investigate city programs.

Early on in the 1993 campaign season, a mere 18 percent of voters surveyed told pollsters that they knew the “city council president,” a publicly elected post for 160 years, had been renamed “public advocate.” Green, a public interest lawyer who had served as Mayor David Dinkins’ commissioner of consumer affairs, won a decisive victory in the primary, taking 46 percent in a six-candidate field that included now-Gov. David Paterson. Green then won 60 percent in the general election.

After taking office, Green quickly demonstrated a knack for getting into the papers, into arguments with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and into some juicy and important policy issues, like the proliferation of check-cashing stores in poor neighborhoods, or insufficient independence at the Department of Investigation.

In 1997, Green brushed aside a primary challenge and won 73 percent of the vote in the general election. He received 46,000 more votes citywide than the triumphantly re-elected Giuliani. Green was victorious again after Giuliani tried via referendum in 1999 to change the charter to shorten the time that the public advocate could serve as interim mayor, and remove the advocate as presiding officer of the Council: Voters rejected the idea by a three-to-one margin.

With Green term-limited and running for mayor, a field of seven Democrats entered the 2001 public advocate’s primary. The candidate with perhaps the longest resume and certainly the largest war chest was Betsy Gotbaum, a veteran of three mayoral administrations who had led several high-profile nonprofit institutions. A one-time schoolteacher, Gotbaum served as an assistant for education to Mayor John Lindsay and ran a training program for school security officers under Mayor Abraham Beame. After leaving City Hall, she ran the nonprofit Police Foundation and the National Alliance against Violence, then spent four years raising venture capital for start-up firms before Mayor Dinkins appointed her Parks Commissioner. Following Dinkins’ departure from office in 1994, Gotbaum became president of the New-York Historical Society.

Gotbaum wrote in the 2001 Campaign Finance Board voters’ guide that she was interested in “putting the power of the Public Advocate’s Office to work for all New Yorkers, answering questions, investigating complaints, and fighting for better government.” She placed first in the crowded primary with 24 percent, then easily defeated second-place finisher Siegel in the runoff before cruising to victory in the general election, taking 86 percent of the vote.

Less money, more problems

By most accounts, including her own, Gotbaum got off to a slow start, failing to issue a policy report during her first five months in office; by that time Green had been on the map on several topics. She blames her own naiveté as well as budget problems for her shaky first year. “I was really green,” she says. “I didn’t realize that there were not a lot of resources in the office. We were half-staffed for six months. I had no press secretary.”

Then in late 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained the charter change that Giuliani had failed to get, removing Gotbaum as presiding officer of the Council. “We were being buffeted,” Gotbaum says. “Frankly, we couldn’t fight it.” The Council re-installed Gotbaum as presiding officer, but she no longer had the ability to break tie votes. More importantly, the charter change hinted at worse to come. “The practical effect of having it happen was realizing that there was one step more to getting rid of the office,” Gotbaum says. “The uncertainty of it did affect the job, probably because I wasn’t certain what was going to come next.”

Bloomberg never moved in for the kill. But he did propose drastic reductions in Gotbaum’s budget.

The office’s funding has been a favorite target of mayors since its inception. In 1994, Dinkins won a 27 percent cut of the office, slashing it from $3.8 million to $2.8 million. The following year, Giuliani pitched a 23 percent reduction, and the Council approved a 13 percent cut; there was a subsequent 5 percent reduction in 1996. In later years, Giuliani budgeted small cuts or flat budgets for Green’s office. Bloomberg has been more consistent. Every year, Bloomberg proposed to cut the office between 20 to 40 percent. Often the Council resisted and even added substantial money to Gotbaum’s line, but sometimes it accepted cuts as deep as 19 percent.

Adjusted for inflation, the budget for the office fell from $5.6 million the last year it was held by a City Council president in 1993, to $2.9 million today—a 48 percent plunge. Despite being a citywide office, the advocate’s current budget is millions less than the city spends annually on the Office of Administrative Tax Appeals, for example, or the Commission on Human Rights, or the Business Integrity Commission.

“The mayor has 200,000 people that work for him and the public advocate’s staff keeps dwindling,” says Gene Russianoff, senior staff attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group. “NYPIRG will soon have more people.” The advocate’s headcount has shrunk from 65 to 31 since 1993.

While she says she and the mayor have a pleasant personal relationship, Gotbaum adds: “He kind of looks at [the public advocate] as a kind of pest.” In a statement, the mayor told City Limits: “We don’t always agree with the Public Advocate, but Betsy’s a great public servant who has devoted much of her career to improving our City, and the City is better because of it.”

Gotbaum has tried to make up for lost public funding by collecting private donations through a nonprofit Fund for Public Advocacy, which she launched in 2002. To date it has raised $2.8 million to fund internships, a commission on school governance and a tenant advocacy project.

A question of strategy

While Gotbaum’s lack of visibility may be an effect of her budget woes, her low profile could also be a cause of the funding shortfalls. Giuliani (who declined to comment for this article) might have cut Green’s budget more, except Green had too much sway in the Council and the media to allow it. A former Green aide, who asked not to be named, points out that it’s a different ballgame now. For one thing, there are fewer newspaper pages devoted to metro news, and what’s more, “In some ways, Giuliani was the perfect foil for Mark.” The former mayor picked fights that Green relished joining and that the press dutifully chronicled. Bloomberg does not stir the same passion or create the same breadth of conflicts.

Partly because of those factors, Gotbaum has never had the kind of weight to throw around that Green had. In his first seven years in office, Green was mentioned in The New York Times and Daily News 1,302 times. Over the equivalent period, Gotbaum garnered 763 mentions from those outlets.

Where the knock on Green was that he was addicted to the glare of TV cameras and the thrill of trading jabs with the mayor, Gotbaum’s critics have long accused her of the opposite—that she’s been conflict averse and too wedded to maintaining a low profile, reducing the office’s impact. One is Andrew Rasiej, an entrepreneur who challenged Gotbaum four years ago. “Betsy did such a dismal job that most of the public still thinks Mark Green’s the public advocate,” says Rasiej. “He’s the de facto incumbent.”

Gotbaum won the 2005 primary with 49 percent of the vote in a six-way race. But looking back over her tenure she admits that she may not have been a perfect fit for the post.

“The problem of this office is you’re supposed to be the watchdog of city services,” she said. “By virtue of that mandate, you are in a contrarian position. And I’m not a contrarian person.” Gotbaum tried to match her personality to the job by taking a collaborative approach. With a few exceptions on certain issues—like increasing the provision of abortion training for doctors in city residency programs—that approach didn’t work, she says.

She adds: “I haven’t worked the press enough. I just haven’t been able to be as effective at dealing with the press as I could have been. But it’s who I am.” She remembers in particular a report she issued on Career and Technical Education in May 2007. “We were the first one out. We had a press conference,” she says, then adds in a whisper: “No one came.”
Still, Gotbaum is proud of her time as public advocate and points to a list of accomplishments. “I believe this office has been there for the most vulnerable New Yorkers who have no place to turn,” she says. Despite her reputation for playing nice, she did sue the MTA over the mayor’s Jets stadium deal and the Department of Education for closing schools without due process; the DOE backtracked after the suit was filed.

Gotbaum has always emphasized the help her office has provided to individuals. Her most recent e-mail newsletter highlights a guy from Brooklyn who faced a hefty water bill that he blamed on a broken meter. Her office intervened, and the city reduced the bill 40 percent. Another case study reads: “A Manhattan subway rider wrote to thank me after my office helped her recover $40 from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The woman had lost the $40 in a MetroCard vending machine.” These are two examples of the 12,000 individual cases that the Public Advocate’s office handles each year. They may seem trivial, but for many residents these interactions are their most direct contact with local government.

She’s also tackled big-picture targets. Recently Gotbaum’s office published a report on how closing the city’s dental clinics will affect low-income children. She’s been out front on issues affecting special education students, bureaucratic obstacles to getting food stamps, how private consultants are shaping school policy, deaths in city shelters and the fate of students “discharged” from city high schools who are counted neither as graduates nor as dropouts. In 2005, her office oversaw the writing of a multi-volume report on options for creating more affordable housing in the city.

Last year, Gotbaum published a report detailing the findings of a commission on school governance that state legislators asked her to form in 2007. The report has made Gotbaum a player in the discussions in Albany over what to do about mayoral control; she supports mayoral control but wants changes. “Betsy was adamant about doing it in a very professional way. And she did it,” says Joseph Viteritti, a Hunter College urban affairs professor who directed the commission. “We did have an opportunity to spend a year on this, and I don’t think anyone else has done that.”

Other observers also give Gotbaum credit. “I think she was an effective spokesperson on certain issues,” says Russianoff. He points in particular to Gotbaum’s opposition to the mayor’s bid last fall for a term limit extension. “She was very principled about it.”

Gotbaum says she’d hoped to make better use of her power to propose laws but contends, “It’s been very difficult to move legislation through the Council.” The office of Speaker Christine Quinn declined to comment on the reasons for those delays. One bill that Gotbaum proposed in 2006, which would allow advocates for low-income people to run advice tables for clients at Human Resources Administration offices, has 35 cosponsors—enough to pass Council and survive a mayoral veto—but Quinn has never brought it up for a vote.

In a recent Quinnipiac Poll, 49 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Gotbaum’s handling of her job, 16 percent disapproved and 35 percent didn’t answer or said they didn’t know.

In with the new…or the old

The four major Democrats running to succeed Gotbaum propose different approaches to the job. At a recent endorsement meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats in Chelsea, Councilman Eric Gioia stressed a crusading approach. “Ask yourself: How just is New York City tonight? And then ask, what are you going to do about it?” he told the crowd, which had thinned out after the first round of speeches by City Council candidates. Siegel followed, saying he sees the post as “the only office where you represent the people against the government.” Next was de Blasio, who countered, “It has to be a community organizing job—sort of a community organizer-in-chief for the city.” Finally, there was Green, running on his resume. “I’ve done the job,” he said. “I know the job.”

Those four well-known candidates do have company in the race. Alex Zablocki, a 26-year-old entrepreneur and legislative aide, is running as a Republican (see sidebar). Imtiaz Syed, an attorney with a practice in Manhattan, has also registered as a candidate with the Campaign Finance Board and an April press release identifies him as a “potential Democratic candidate”; he didn’t respond to an interview request.

For any of this year’s candidates to “win” in a larger sense, they must not only get more votes but also articulate a rationale for the office of public advocate to continue.

At least one prominent good-government advocate does not feel it should. “The next charter commission could seriously examine its importance and its need,” says Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey. “I am not convinced that it serves an important enough purpose to continue as such into the future. I hope the charter reform commission will seriously consider whether it should continue.”

The advocate position has potential to get more diverse voices into the city’s politics, says New York City Partnership president Kathryn Wylde, but “the original notion that the office would be an ombudsman between citizens and city agencies has not really materialized” because the office doesn’t have the resources or investigative power to make good on that duty.

Gotbaum acknowledges these shortcomings: “You’re supposed to be their watchdog. But the person you’re watching controls your budget.” That’s why she and others who want to preserve the role would like the charter changed to give the advocate an independent budget based on a percentage of the Council’s own funding, as well as the ability to issue subpoenas to compel city agencies to turn over information.

For his part, NYPIRG’s Russianoff believes New York needs an advocate. “My general world view is we have an extremely strong-mayor form of government. The mayor is the Sun King and everyone else is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” he says, referring to the two courtiers who end up as pawns in Hamlet. “Where do groups like mine go if City Hall says, ‘Drop dead?’”

– Jarrett Murphy

This is the first in a series of articles about the race for public advocate; successive stories will profile each of the four top candidates. Next week: City Councilman Bill de Blasio.

Correction: The article has been corrected to reflect that a successful fundraising effort in 2008 raised Gotbaum’s foundation fundraising to $2.8 million, not $1 million as originally reported. The 2008 results were not yet publicly available in tax documents reviewed for the original article. 5/18/09

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