The office of the New York City public advocate is like the pinky toe of political posts: It looks like it’s there to help, at least a little, but it’s not clear what exactly it does. New York City government could seemingly function without one. That’s a sign the job, unless it’s abolished altogether, should be redesigned to have clear power and a delineated role.
The public advocate’s has effectively functioned as a springboard for higher office and little else. Letitia James, the current public advocate, was elected state attorney general last week. Her predecessor as public advocate, Bill de Blasio, was elected mayor. Were it not for Michael Bloomberg’s billions and the September 11th attacks, New York’s first public advocate, Mark Green, would have been mayor as well.
One would be hard-pressed to come up with any major tangible accomplishments in the public advocate’s office by James, de Blasio or Green. Rarely has a job come with so much political opportunity and so little actual responsibility – not to mention a $184,800 salary, a driver and an office at the Municipal Building across the street from City Hall.
James’ departure has set off a mad scramble for the job: The city’s rising and former stars – including New York City Councilmen Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, Assemblyman Michael Blake and former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – are lining up to run to replace James in a citywide special election, likely to be held next February.
What does a public advocate do? The position is akin to the city’s ombudsperson – a watchdog over agencies with none of the actual power of investigatory oversight bodies like the attorney general or inspector general. According to the city charter, the public advocate is second in the line of succession if the mayor resigns or can’t serve any longer.
When I interned at the public advocate’s office in 2010, I found it to be similar to a City Council office, only on the scale of five boroughs. Beleaguered, well-meaning case workers would handle constituent calls and help people navigate city bureaucracy.
Like a council member, the public advocate can introduce legislation and takes the ceremonial role of presiding over City Council meetings. James has been more willing than her predecessors to introduce bills and initiate lawsuits against the city, some of which have been thrown out.
With Republican mayors, the public advocate had a more obvious role. Green sparred with Rudy Giuliani over police brutality, serving as something of the leader of a liberal resistance. Betsy Gotbaum, Green’s more muted successor, criticized Bloomberg over repealing term limits, while de Blasio repeatedly chastised Bloomberg over his policing and housing policies. The billionaire mayor thought the office of public advocate should be abolished.
Maybe it should be. A few City Council members want to do just that, having introduced a bill that would lead to a voter referendum to get rid of the position.
Part of the problem with the office is how it came into being. The office was created in 1993 as the result of a political deal to save the career of a man once well-known to New Yorkers, but now all but forgotten: Andrew Stein.
Stein was the president of the City Council, an elected citywide post with little tangible power. After a momentous review of the City Charter eliminated the position altogether (this came after the old Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional, the City Council was expanded, and the office of the speaker was created), Stein needed something to do. Drawn up as a landing pad for the scion of a publishing magnate who once mused about being the first Jewish president, the public advocate was born.
Stein would ultimately not have the job, focusing instead on a mayoral primary against David Dinkins that he would not win. Green won the inaugural 1993 primary for public advocate, attempting to use the post as a springboard for the U.S. Senate and later New York City mayor.
If the alternative is the public advocate’s office remains a mostly ceremonial post existing to launch yet another career politician to higher office, then it should be abolished.
But there’s another way, as has been pointed out by longtime election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder: Make it stronger.
City Council legislation could do this. Even with district attorneys and an inspector general, New York’s bureaucracy is vast, always in need of more oversight beyond just the city comptroller’s office. The City Council could grant the public advocate subpoena power, giving it true oversight capacity over city agencies and the mayor’s office. With subpoena power, the public advocate could order a bad actor to testify during an investigation or hearing, lending the office real teeth.
Subpoena power would answer most criticisms of the office: that it wastes taxpayer money and can’t ferret out actual corruption. In addition to subpoena power, the public advocate could work with the city comptroller to expose fraud and abuse in city government. Alliances like these have already proven fruitful: The state attorney general and state comptroller have partnered on multiple corruption-busting investigations.
Just as importantly, since the public advocate is an elected office, it should have a vote on legislation. Bloomberg eliminated the ability of the public advocate to break ties in the City Council. Not only should this power be restored, but the public advocate should be able to cast votes on legislation, since the office already can introduce bills.
Giving a vote to the public advocate will also create a real role of oversight in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the community-based process for reviewing rezonings and developments in the city.
These changes to the office would require not just City Council action, but a referendum placed among the voters citywide since they are alterations to a City Charter-mandated role.
We need more watchdogs, not fewer. Making the public advocate a powerful, lasting part of our oversight infrastructure would imbue the office with real purpose. To maintain the status quo or eliminate the office altogether misses an opportunity to change our city government for the better.
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