The new year opens with high-level positions to be filled at the city’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration, following social services leadership changes announced in the last weeks of 2006.
HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston will leave her post at an as-yet-unspecified date for an as-yet-untitled position at Mayor Bloomberg’s new philanthropic organization “to research and develop the Foundation’s projects,” according to a statement Dec. 27 from the Bloomberg Family Foundation. The foundation was created this fall to disburse some of Bloomberg’s multi-billion fortune when his mayoral term ends in 2009.
Meanwhile, Gov. Spitzer’s transition team announced the week before that David Hansell, Eggleston’s chief of staff, was Spitzer’s nomination for commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Hansell is now acting commissioner, pending the state senate’s confirmation. HRA spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio said Hansell’s and Eggleston’s decisions are unrelated.
Both moves came as a surprise to the city’s welfare advocacy community, but advocates were optimistic about what these changes could bring. Observers also were reminded that HRA’s general counsel position has been filled by acting counsels for some time, and wondered whether that position will be permanently filled anytime soon.
“There is now an opportunity for a culture shift at HRA,” said Jillynn Stevens, policy director at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, who described “a culture of suspicion of validity” of welfare clients’ claims for needing help. “There’s been an oppositional relationship as opposed to a helpful relationship,” Stevens said.
But advocates widely agreed that HRA under Eggleston, since Jan. 2002, has been markedly better than under previous mayor Rudy Giuliani. “That was an administration that was dedicated to not even letting people apply for assistance,” said Don Friedman, a senior policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York. “The edge was softened considerably under her administration.”
Of Hansell, Friedman said, “I believe he is a smart guy, a decent person, with a lot of integrity, and I’m very optimistic about how he’ll be in that agency.”
Observers gave Eggleston credit for the basic concept of the WeCare program, although implementation may have been flawed, and faulted her for backing full-family sanctions, where children also bear the penalties of their parents’ noncompliance with welfare rules. They said a major goal for the next commissioner should be increasing access to education and training for recipients of public assistance.
And who might that be? The community isn’t exactly buzzing with possibilities, but HRA First Deputy Commissioner Patricia M. Smith and Family Independence Administration Executive Deputy Commissioner Seth Diamond, both of whom have years of experience at the agency, are mentioned as candidates for the top job.
Although many have considered Eggleston a controversial figure – and some raise an eyebrow at the higher profile of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs with major initiatives like the Commission on Economic Opportunity and the online welfare ACCESS project – her long tenure speaks to Bloomberg’s satisfaction with her performance.
“Five years is a long time in that job,” said Jack Krauskopf, a former HRA commissioner who’s now on the public affairs faculty at Baruch College. He set an early-80s record by serving for three and a half years under Mayor Koch.
Indeed, Welfare Rights Initiative Co-Director Maureen Lane, along with others, sees Eggleston’s move straightforwardly (rather than as some kind of “kick upstairs”).
Bloomberg is “either insincere in his commitment to philanthropy himself, or he believes she is capable,” Lane said. “We believe that philanthropy can do more to be involved with setting policy and tone. Conceivably she could be part of this shift, and we would urge her to do that.”
Former Bloomberg LLP executive Susan Calzone is the only other person already named to a foundation staff position.
For her part, Eggleston said in a statement last week: “The Mayor has given me a wonderful opportunity to use all of the expertise that I’ve garnered over the years in human services. Over the past five years, I have benefited greatly from the Mayor’s models of management and good governance and I look forward to working with him and applying those principles at the Bloomberg Family Foundation.”