News & Politics

Will Lander pay political price for blocking Adams’ emergency contracts?

Mayor Eric Adams appears to have already begun shifting blame to the comptroller for issues responding to an influx of migrants into the city.

City Comptroller Brad Lander speaks as striking members of Writers Guild of America picketing in front of NBC Universal.

City Comptroller Brad Lander speaks as striking members of Writers Guild of America picketing in front of NBC Universal. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander is confident about his decision to revoke Mayor Eric Adams’ emergency powers to make contract deals for migrant services without prior approval. He had warned he may do as much back in September. But the move, the latest in an ongoing, tense back-and-forth between himself and the mayor, is likely to lead to the Adams administration blaming the comptroller’s office for any delays to migrant services. City officials are already saying that the loss of blanket approval will slow down its response to the crisis.

“(Lander) went to D.C. 20 months later, and he came back with tying our hands,” Adams said earlier this week. “That just sort of defies logic to me, that we have to make these quick decisions on dealing with these contracts and placing people in housing so I’m a little disappointed that when he returned from D.C. he didn’t come back with any real answers.”

The comptroller’s office contends the move won’t result in any service delays to migrants. “Our office responds to requests for prior approval in an expeditious and efficient manner given the urgency that often surrounds emergency needs,” a spokesperson for Lander said in a statement. “Requesting prior approval is only one step of many when an agency is seeking to use the emergency procurement method and our office regularly works with the agencies to review such requests and we do consider the time-sensitive nature of those requests.”

Lander recently told city agencies that going forward, his office would in many cases need to pre-approve emergency procurement requests before the city can sign emergency contracts. Last year, Adams was given the power to ink such deals with migrant service contractors free of the need for pre-approval from the comptroller’s office to allow for quicker spending during a fast-moving crisis. 

Lander’s move to revoke those powers made good on a threat he’d made in September after expressing concerns that City Hall was choosing too many unqualified vendors and not being transparent about spending. At the time, Lander retroactively declined to approve a $432 million deal with for-profit medical services firm DocGo, which has been accused of failing to properly care for migrants. But City Hall moved forward with the contract regardless.

A report released by the comptroller’s office last week criticized the city’s use of emergency spending powers for operating with little transparency and oversight as city officials doled out over $1.7 billion in fast-tracked contracts from January through September of last year.  

While the comptroller may decline to register a contract, the mayor has the authority to override that decision and approve the contract regardless of any objections that the comptroller raises. That remains the case even though Lander has now revoked Adams’ prior approval. Still, the move will give Lander’s office more space to register any concerns about migrant contracts – even if the mayor is technically free to ignore those concerns. 

“There is a built in statutory power and a bully pulpit for the comptroller to put the spotlight, the onus and the burden on the administration to decide how the mayor wants to proceed here,” Democratic political consultant Trip Yang said. 

Yang said that it seems like the Adams administration is preparing to shift the blame to others, particularly Lander, if the migrant crisis worsens. Tensions have already been building between the mayor and the comptroller. Lander has criticized the city for spending too much on emergency measures instead of investing in long-term planning, while Adams has repeatedly knocked the comptroller for not doing enough to enlist aid from the federal government. (Lander went to D.C. for the first time last week to meet with White House officials and talk about the migrant crisis). “It does seem like the administration is laying the groundwork if something bad happens or the migrant crisis worsens that they’ll lay it at the feet of the comptroller,” Yang said.

The dispute between Lander and Adams over emergency contract spending isn’t without precedent.

Former New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer sued former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2021 in order to strip him of emergency powers that the mayor had exercised during the COVID-19 pandemic to issue hundreds of contracts for things like city contact-tracing efforts and obtaining personal protective equipment without comptroller oversight.

“I think this is absolutely appropriate,” Stringer told City & State of Lander’s decision. “Look, we need more transparency and oversight – not less. That’s why the comptroller’s responsibility is to review these contracts and then make a determination whether these contracts should be registered.”

Stringer, who has reportedly been speaking with Democratic strategists and potential donors about the feasibility of a 2025 mayoral run, won his legal challenge against de Blasio – a fact he emphasized when asked whether he thinks Lander’s move could open the door to the Adams administration blaming him for any contract delays. 

“There’s no blame. Oversight is the job of comptroller,” he said. “Mayors don’t like it, but they have to accept it or a judge will tell them to accept it.”