In This Fight, Public Advocate Is The Underdog

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When the New York Times delivered its all-important endorsement to then-City Councilman Bill de Blasio in last year’s race for public advocate, the paper noted that the winner’s chief task would be “demonstrating whether this position truly serves New Yorkers.”

If the subtext wasn’t clear then, it was brought into sharp focus when the mayor’s charter revision commission announced that its agenda for this year would include the possible elimination of the public advocate position. A little-understood office that was itself created in a 1993 charter revision (out of the wreckage of the title of City Council president, which had been stripped of most of its power by a Supreme Court ruling), the public advocate is supposed to act as an independently elected “ombudsman” to keep watch over the mayor and City Council.

That means the future of the office could rest in the hands of de Blasio, the former councilmember, federal housing official, and Hillary Clinton campaign manager who won the job after a tight four-way primary race and subsequent runoff against former public advocate Mark Green last fall. As chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, de Blasio had been a vocal critic of many of Mayor Bloomberg’s policies, particularly his refusal to allow able-bodied single adults to receive food stamps unless they’re working, and what de Blasio considered an insufficiently robust approach to reducing poverty.

After eight years of Betsy Gotbaum, a lifelong city bureaucrat who was seen as largely inactive, hopes were high that the next public advocate would, as the Times put it, create “a more powerful counterbalance to the city’s powerful mayor than the outgoing public advocate.”

So far, though, de Blasio has been relatively quiet, even amid one of the most contentious budget seasons in recent memory. His most visible efforts have come in the area of homelessness, where he assailed the mayor’s policies on the eve of Bloomberg’s state of the city address in January; Coalition for the Homeless policy analyst Patrick Markee praises de Blasio’s “very helpful role” in the successful campaign to roll back the state’s plan to charge rent to homeless shelter residents. “We’re really pleased that he’s continued his role on the General Welfare Committee to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire,” says Markee.

Most of de Blasio’s homelessness campaigning has come via press conferences and public statements, a pattern that’s carried over his first six months in office: The news section of de Blasio’s website is crowded with public statements on events of the day and rallies he’s attended. It’s a trend that drew a recent jibe from his predecessor Green: After noting to the New York Observer that de Blasio has been hobbled by a 40 percent budget cut to the public advocate’s office that was instituted last year, Green added that de Blasio eventually needs to “produce measurable procedural or policy or legislative results beyond standing at press conferences with local residents or workers like an ACORN activist might do.”

It’s a charge that de Blasio himself agrees with—up to a point. “Of course, Mark is right when he says the focus has to be on tangible impact on people,” he says. “I think what we’ve managed to do already in five months is have a real impact in getting some policies changed, in getting thousands of people served already at the individual constituent level, in having an impact on the budget discussions and legislative discussions. There’s a whole host of areas where we’ve had a tangible impact despite the lack of staffing and the fact that my staff and I are all new at doing this.”

Among the achievements he points to so far are issuing a series of recommendations for voter education on using new optical-scan voting machines, and calling on government pension funds to require more corporate disclosure on corporate campaign spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case. (De Blasio cites the public advocate’s seats on both the city pension board and the City Planning Commission as a power of the office that his predecessors hadn’t fully utilized.)

De Blasio has appeared at multiple rallies against proposed budget cuts and delivered to City Hall 600 postcards signed by parents who oppose planned funding reductions to daycare centers.

He says he also expects his office to “soon” finalize a report on the impacts of the Bloomberg administration’s decision last winter to rescind 1,200 Section 8 housing vouchers that it had already issued to families facing homelessness.

If most of his work falls into the category of issuing press statements—or, in the case of the campaign disclosure issue, a Huffington Post op-ed—de Blasio readily admits that one of the best tools he has is the bully pulpit.

He cites the shelter rent campaign as a perfect example, where he was able to draw media attention that individual members of the City Council could not. “It’s very different to be elected from one of 51 districts and have a chairmanship of one of 30 committees, versus being one of three citywide officials,” he says.

Some attempts at more far-reaching policy changes, meanwhile, have fallen flat. In particular, de Blasio’s February announcement of his intention to create a searchable database of Council earmarks, which he said would be up and running by mid-April, fizzled after only five councilmembers (plus Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer) signed on to the plan, and council Speaker Christine Quinn announced she wouldn’t be participating. (De Blasio now says his plan at least helped spur Quinn to implement her own reporting reforms for 2011.)

Likewise, a monthly “Public Advocate on the Street” visit to local communities to get feedback from constituents—something de Blasio says he sees as key to the public advocate’s ombudsman role—was announced at the start of June, but the page on the public advocate’s website for future street visits remains blank. (A de Blasio spokesperson says they’re still “finalizing the calendar.”)

Meanwhile, some local policy activists have expressed concerns that de Blasio may avoid taking sides on contentious issues, something that was a an occasional criticism during his Council terms as well. (De Blasio is widely considered to have mayoral ambitions in 2013; his office insisted that any interview requests would not discuss his “political future,” only his current office.)

For example, when Bloomberg announced he was avoiding teacher layoffs by eliminating pay raises—a plan that predictably drew an immediate attack from the teachers’ union—de Blasio’s press statement simply praised the mayor for avoiding cuts, then blamed Albany “inaction” for bringing on the schools budget crisis.

De Blasio has made education a stated priority, sponsoring a series of “town halls” for parents on addressing school issues. But Josh Karan, a parent advocate in upper Manhattan’s school district 6, says he was disappointed by a March meeting of de Blasio’s new Parent Advocacy Coordinating Team, itself first announced at a town hall earlier that month.

“There was no intent to include the direction that parent activists believed needed to be taken, and the focus was on workshops to explore procedural matters: how to organize a meeting, a School Leadership Team, a [Community Education Council],” says Karan. When he and other parents complained to de Blasio’s office, he says, he received a letter back three weeks later explaining that the public advocate was “still working to consider and refine his education policy priorities and develop a full-fledged platform to address the wide-ranging needs and issues faced by students, schools and families.”

De Blasio counsels patience. “I think it’s a beginning,” he says of the town halls and the PACT creation. “Certainly, we’re not comfortable with the existing process. So I think if anyone interpreted that as the goal, then we didn’t express clearly enough that we’re trying to organize parents to make sure their voices are heard much more deeply and to get real results from it.”

He adds: “To anyone who is looking for more, they’ll be seeing a lot more in the coming months.”

But in as few as five months, voters might be asked to approve changes to the city charter that could eliminate de Blasio’s post after his term ends in 2013. De Blasio believes the purpose of his position is clear: “There’s no bureaucracy on earth that’s self-policing. The only way you make sure things are being done efficiently and fairly is to have an outside watchdog.”