New York Civic: Annus Horribilis By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_HenryJ Bloomberg Beleaguered by Medley of Mishaps.

Third Term Troubles?

The flood of personal criticism leveled at Mayor Bloomberg because of the city's poor response to the December 26 blizzard is somewhat over the top.

Many factors contributed to the city's failure to clean the streets, and there is likely to be at least one investigation to explore the sequence of events and offer proposals to prevent or mitigate a recurrence. Actually, the last two major snowfalls had been well handled, which led to the public's expectation that this storm would be dealt with promptly and professionally. That turned out not to be the case.

Of course, the Mayor had the responsibility of command. You take credit for the good things that happen on your watch, and get blamed for the bad things that happen. People know at some level that the chief executive does not usually make immediate decisions which affect the outcome of these crises, but, nonetheless, success or failure are attributed to the king, chieftain, or the leader of the tribe.

The Mayor attracted criticism because of his initial attitude toward the storm, treating it as a nuisance rather than as a serious blow to others, whose homes could not be reached by ambulances or were unable to get to work. As of today, we have not had reports of fatal heart attacks caused by people shoveling the snow that blocks their automobiles that are parked in the street. That is fortunate, but the situation is still risky.

As the crisis continued, the Mayor changed his stance and took the situation much more seriously. He did not repeat his suggestion that they attend a Broadway theater, which had a Marie Antoinette quality when addressed to people trapped in their homes by snowdrifts, or unable to travel owing to blocked streets or subway and elevated lines which were not running.

Actually, the MTA response to the storm appears to have been far worse than the Department of Sanitation’s, judging from the length of time that lines were out of service, but chief Jay Walder maintained a low profile. We have not previously associated the unpopular MTA with failure to respond to snowstorms which blocked the tracks, but they sure messed up this time.

The MTA’s low point came when they held a trainload of passengers during a very chilly night at Howard Beach, the station closest to JFK airport.  When one thinks about it, the failure to retrieve their own passengers from a frozen stalled train for seven hours is a remarkable example of incompetence, and the investigations that will follow should not ignore that episode. We assume that the passengers who had cell phones used them, otherwise the situation would have been far worse as citizens searched for relatives missing in the tundra.

With all the city’s faults, we believe that the concentration of blame on Mayor Bloomberg is unjustified in this instance. It seems to us as if the media and the people finally have found a plausible reason to express their dissatisfaction at a number of unpopular decisions made by the Mayor over the last few years.

First, and most important, was the 2008 reversal of his long-held public position on his own tenure, when he decided to seek re-election by using his puppets on the City Council to rush through a law extending eligibility from two to three terms. The public, when polled, objected to this change by a margin of 89 per cent to 7 per cent. The unfairness of changing the rules in the middle of a conflict was widely perceived; it basically runs up against people’s ideas of fair play. 

What the Mayor did, however, was clever and wise. He personally sought, and received the support of, his fellow billionaires who owned newspapers. His alliance with Rupert Murdoch of the Post, Mort Zuckerman of the News, and Arthur Sulzberger of the Times (who may no longer be a billionaire) secured the success of his scheme.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with seeking support from one’s peers, especially when one has so few peers. The reporters hated the switch to three terms, and expressed that view in their columns and articles to the extent that they could, but the owners control the editorial pages, and they lose enough money on their papers that they have all paid for the privilege of expressing their opinions. It is also an underlying fact that Mayor Bloomberg has so far been a generally good mayor, and, having seen seven relatively closely and three at a distance, I know that some were much better than others, and some were far worse.

A number of other matters have chewed at the Mayor’s reputation. The repeated indications of pre-Presidential activities, travels and speeches and the formation of nation-wide organizations and coalitions for various good causes, coupled with the same denials Bloomberg made repeatedly when he was asked whether he would run for a third term, tug a bit at the credibility of the non-candidate. Of course he is not running today, but if circumstances a year or two from now warrant a change of heart, there is no reason why he should not run.

It was once seen as possible that he would be a more moderate and effective President than either Mr. Obama or Ms. Palin, assuming they were to be the major parties’ nominees. Recent events have taken the bloom off that rose, just as Mayor Giuliani’s support for Bernie Kerik as Secretary of Homeland Security doomed his hopes in 2012, although it was not immediately realized that that was the case.

The Kerik situation illustrated one of the parables of politics: how many years of relatively good work can be canceled out by a single error in judgment. The public can be forgiving, but it usually takes time for outrage to dissipate, and in this country, unlike England, elections come  on a fixed schedule.

On November 9, Mayor Bloomberg suddenly announced the appointment of Cathie Black, recently kicked upstairs to be chair of Hearst magazines, as Schools Chancellor, and Joel Klein was tossed to Rupert Murdoch to do something or other. Ms. Black had absolutely no experience in education, but is an engaging and attractive member of the mayor’s  circle of acquaintances. She required a waiver of State legal requirements, which was obligingly granted by the State Education Commissioner, a decision so far upheld in court. 

The justification for approval here is that the Education Mayor is responsible for the school system, and should be allowed to appoint his own choice as long as she can read and write. 

Basically, no one who was not in on the plot takes Ms. Black seriously. What can she contribute to a professional field so difficult to manage that experts are sharply divided and statistics are notoriously suspect? The Black episode took its toll on the Mayor’s earned reputation for excellent, well-vetted appointments.

Then, on December 12, the Mayor’s confessed on NBC’s Meet the Press that “I want to go out being, having a reputation as a very good, maybe the greatest mayor ever.” Although the context of the statement may have been a denial of Presidential ambitions, the words were criticized as overly self-referential.

As luck would have it, on December 15, the first (and hopefully the last) major scandal of the administration broke, with $80 million reported stolen and uncounted millions wasted in a computer fraud. Juan Gonzalez of the News had written a year of stories about City Time, naming the bad guy who ran the agency (Bondy) while completely under the thumb of a his buddy (Mazer), a worse guy who, with the aid of his relatives, stole all he could gets his hands on, which came to eight or nine figures. 

The case became public when six people were indicted by the United States Attorney for the Southern District (an office previously held by Mayor Giuliani), who worked  with the NYC Department of Investigation. This was the largest depredation of public funds in a century, comparable to Boss Tweed’s profits from the construction of the New York County Courthouse in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

Although the Mayor was obviously unaware of the thievery going on, and expressed “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the question at once arises as to who, under him, was in charge of the CityTime project.  There must be a chain of command and responsibility here. Who oversaw the thoroughly corrupt Office of Payroll Management?

Note that former Comptroller William Thompson shared control of this agency with the Mayor, and reported nothing. The new Comptroller, John Liu, sounded the alarm in 2010, but the horse was long gone from the stable. The series of frauds, which continued for six years, was not helpful to the Mayor’s reputation as a professional manager with particular expertise in computers.

The timing of this descending series of incidents created an unfortunate karma before the December 26 blizzard. The latest report, posted on the Daily News website today, is about Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s tweet at 11:06 p.m. Sunday night: “Good snow work by Sanitation.” Needless to say, and fair or unfair, this tweet will be remembered as the local equivalent of former President Bush’s memorable words on September 2, 2005: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

The good news is that all this is happening toward the end of 2010, which may be comparable to the year 1992, which Queen Elizabeth II described in a speech to Guildhall on November 24, as an “annus horribilis”. For a list of the misfortunes that Her Majesty endured eighteen years ago, click here. You see, it can happen to anyone.

We hope that the curse of the third term worked itself out this year, and that the remaining three years will be happy and peaceful ones for the city and for its Mayor. The problem is that substantial budget cuts lie ahead, which will lead to reduced services and increased unemployment.

These are hard times for anyone who governs. Mayor Bloomberg knew that. In fact, he said on October 2, 2008 at the press conference announcing his intention to seek a third term that “handling this financial crisis while strengthening the essential services such as education and public safety is a challenge I want to take on for the people of New York.” He has that responsibility and that obligation.

As the year 2010 comes to a merciful end, we hope that 2011 will be as good as it can be under the circumstances. Rough times lie ahead for all governments, but out of the three sovereignties: federal, state and local, it is the City of New York that has been most financially responsible for the last decade.

We have a decent, honorable and intelligent mayor. His personality appeals to some, and not to others.

A problem he will face in his tenth year in office is that after a while the people get tired of you. It happened to LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch, all now highly regarded mayors.

The Mayor should try to do as much good as he can in a climate of reduced sustenance for the city and lowering clouds for himself. We particularly recommend that he follow Rule 19: "Be kind to man and beast."

We wish all of you good health and good will in the new year.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@nycivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic

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eHeziNew York Civic: Annus Horribilis By Henry J. Stern

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