It took only five days into the new year for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first blunder. With 20 months until the next mayoral primary, the mayor has named someone with no experience in New York City government as deputy mayor to oversee the crises of poverty, homelessness, health and child well being.
Herminia Palacio is a doctor who worked in public health programs in San Francisco (pop. 852,000) and Harris County, Texas (pop. 4 million). During de Blasio’s press conference announcing Palacio’s appointment, de Blasio highlighted her experience as a “crisis management expert” and the “major role” she played in managing public health at Harris County’s emergency shelter following Hurricane Katrina – 10 years ago.
But an investigation by City & State found that Palacio was not the official responsible for establishing or managing the emergency shelter that housed 27,000 Katrina victims in the Houston Astrodome. According to news reports and a report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and Houston Mayor Bill White were in charge. They led a command team of city, county, state and federal officials, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and Army, according to the post-incident report available at preparingtexas.org. Palacio was not a member of the command team, according to this document.
City Hall’s press release announcing Palacio’s appointment says she was responsible for “running all of the public health operations for the shelter,” but the "Hurricane Katrina Houston Megashelter Operations" organization charts lists Palacio as one of two doctors heading the “Medical Branch," five rungs down from the area commander.
The de Blasio administration’s press release also touts Palacio’s experience as “Senior Policy Advisor for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, where she served on the front lines combatting HIV/AIDS.” Yet, she was not the city’s health commissioner and her LinkedIn profile shows that Palacio started that job in 1998 – three years after the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in the U.S., which made the disease manageable and reduced the number of deaths from AIDS by more than 50 percent within two years.
Her title was "Supervising Physician Specialist," according to the Human Resources at the Department of Health.
Has de Blasio already forgotten that four months ago he pushed out Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, one of the most highly regarded officials in his administration? Barrios-Paoli had more than 35 years experience in city government and served as commissioner of two of the agencies the deputy mayor for health and human services supervises.
Now, Deputy Mayor Palacio is going to be the city’s point person in solving the worsening homeless crisis and will, in part, be tasked with negotiating policy, program and budget with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This is the man who built a national reputation in the 1990s when he was one of the city’s largest developers and providers of housing for the homeless before moving on to become the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Clinton administration.
Does anybody expect the governor to be gentle with her while she spends the next couple of months getting up to speed?
Further, this city government neophyte will be supervising one commissioner, Gladys Carrión, who rewrote many of New York’s policies and laws on poverty reduction, juvenile justice, child welfare and child care, and another commissioner, Steve Banks, who single-handedly established most of the current case law on city homeless policy while at Legal Aid Society. Over the last 30 years they have each built reputations as the best legal minds in these policy areas.
What's going on here? Is it possible Palacio came in to interview for the Department of Homeless Services opening, and because she had a Spanish surname, de Blasio figured he'd name her deputy mayor, like he did with Carmen Fariña at the Department of Education? Now we have a disaster of a schools chancellor who rates schools based on how pretty their bulletin boards are, instead of reading scores.
The start of de Blasio’s third year in office already looks like a repeat of the first two.
Eddie Borges is a reporter and documentarian, currently directing the documentary feature film From Puebla to Sunset Park. Borges previously served as Gladys Carrion's press secretary at the state Department of Children and Family Services.