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September 14th, 2009, 06:35 AM
A Heartbeat Away -- But What is the Public Advocate?

by DeNora Getachew and Andrea Senteno

14 Sep 2009


Top row, from left: Charles V. Fornes, John Purroy Mitchel, Al Smith, Fiorello H. La Guardia; bottom row: Joseph V. McKee, Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum

Do you know what the public advocate (http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/) does and that he or she is next in line to succeed the mayor? With New Yorkers set to vote in Tuesday's primary for many city offices, including public advocate, NY1 surveyed New Yorkers and found that most respondents not only did not know who the public advocate is or what the public advocate does, but also had no idea who is running for the office. With that in mind, here's a short primer on the origin and role of this official and the continuing discussion about the utility of this position.

When Did New York City Even Get a Public Advocate?

The position of public advocate originated in 1831 way back when the city was still five separate boroughs, according to a 1998 New York Law School Law Review article co-written by Laurel Eisner and former Public Advocate Mark Green, who is seeking the office again. It was not called the public advocate then, but even as president of the Board of Alderman -- a legislative body representing the borough of New York and portions of the Bronx – the position was next in line to the mayor. This job was converted into that of City Council president in 1936 -- still a heartbeat away from the mayor in the event of vacancy, disability or other absence from office and empowered to preside over the Council and break tie votes.

The council president had a very limited role in government. During the 1975 charter revision debate, according to Green's article, it was noted that, although the office had no real administrative authority over the delivery of city services, was not a member of the executive branch and had a very narrow role in the council, it served an important function as a "critic at large." After debating whether to eliminate the office -- the first of many conversations about its role and utility of the office -- the 1975 commission instead decided to empower the council president through "a new, quasi-ombudsman role." The term ombudsperson derives from the Swedish word for "go between" or someone who would "protect individuals against the excesses of bureaucracy."

Despite these new ombudsperson powers, the council presidency still was pretty limited in its capacity -- lacking the ability to pursue individual complaints and the enforcement tools to ensure it could actually, not just theoretically, oversee or review city agencies. With this as a backdrop, the 1989 charter revision commission again revisited the issue of the role of the council president. Some commission members proposed eliminating the office, some said keep it, and some presented a new option that is still being debated until this day – creating an appointed ombudsperson position.

Yet again the council president's role was saved from the hatchet -- this time because Commission Chairman Fredrick A.O. Schwarz argued that the role brought balance to city government by "concentrating on the service implications of the programs" implemented by the mayor.

The 1989 charter commission gave the office new responsibilities that created a bit of a several-headed monster -- one part legislator as presiding officer of the council, one part executive as first in line to succeed to the mayoralty, one part "charter cop" through the ombudsperson role and one part pension trustee for the city's Employees' Retirement System. It also gave the office power to appoint a member of the City Planning Commission (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/about/plancom.shtml), among other appointment responsibilities.
Today, the public advocate's legislative role allows him or her to be an ex officio member of all council committees and to introduce legislation, but the advocate can vote only to break a tie. The ombudsperson role, which was substantially bolstered in 1989, empowers the public advocate to address individual grievances, deal with citywide problems, evaluate the performance of city agencies and "monitor public information service complaints of city agencies."

Despite the substantial increase in the council president's authority, only four years later in 1993, legislation was proposed in the city council to abolish the office of council president. This idea was again rejected in favor of simply changing the name of the office to public advocate to "reflect its charter roles and to dispel the impression that the holder exercised a predominant role in the City Council."

Fast forward to 2009, a municipal election year, and the discussion continues about keeping New York's public advocate. While the candidates vying (http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/issueoftheweek/20090831/200/3003) to be the next public advocate give campaign speeches about what they would do to bolster the office's visibility and authority, at the other end of the spectrum Councilmember Simcha Felder from Brooklyn introduced a bill (http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=453242&GUID=07182429-C2D0-42A1-83DB-E284B3B5655E&Options=ID%7CText%7C&Search=public+advocate) and issued a report (http://council.nyc.gov/downloads/pdf/reducing_redundancy_felder_7_2009.pdf) in July 2009 – proposing to get rid of the office altogether. "It is clear to me that given the services provided by the city's 59 community boards, five borough presidents, and numerous city, state, and federal elected officials, the office of the public advocate could easily be eliminated without a loss of service to city residents," Felder said. Felder's bill is currently pending in the Council's Governmental Operations Committee awaiting a hearing.

Other Places Have Ombudspersons Too

While electing a city ombudsperson may be unique to New York City, the tradition of a public official to empower ordinary citizens, especially those who have been marginalized, originated in the United States in Jamestown, New York. Many other cities and states have this function within their government structure. Portland, Ore., describes its ombudsperson (http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=26647), who is appointed by the city auditor and therefore independent from the mayor and the city council, as being able to assist the public with their complaints and concerns and promote higher standards of services and efficiency.

In Detroit the city ombudsperson is appointed by the city council, but is meant to be an independent government official to respond to citizen complaints against city agencies and government departments. Detroit's ombudsperson (http://www.ci.detroit.mi.us/legislative/CharterAppointments/Ombudsman/omb_main_frame.htm) holds subpoena power so can retrieve documents and records necessary to conduct investigations – a power that New York City's public advocate lacks. The current office holder, Durene Brown, claims success for being the first city official to change state law in Detroit -- passing a measure to include libraries as drug-free zones.

Other cities have appointed ombudspersons who focus on addressing complaints in specific areas, like police and law enforcement or senior citizen services, as is the case in Boise and Minneapolis, respectively. Finally, Los Angeles has an ombudsperson office (http://ombudsman.lacounty.info/) that boasts ombudspersons to seven different city agencies, ranging from the Sheriff's Department to the Department of Social Services.

A Public Advocate's Perspective on the Matter

New York's current public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, who has been in the office since 2001, said that although people are unfamiliar with the office and it has few resources – it has a budget that is only "one two hundredth of 1 percent of the total city budget" – she believes it helps thousands of everyday New Yorkers with their problems. In particular, she said, her office has focused on "improving services for often ignored populations."

Gotbaum disagreed that the services her office provides duplicates other services, citing the many calls the office receives as referrals from the city's 311 non-emergency hotline. She would like to se the 311 include a "direct link" to her office.

Moreover, her office has been able to help many citywide constituents by using a sophisticated computer-based tracking system that allows her and her staff to troubleshoot individual problems while tracking trends that may indicate citywide issues.

In addition, Gotbaum's policy staff, alone or in partnership with relevant advocacy groups, conducts research and issues reports spotlighting problems. These may or may not be accompanied by a press conference depending on whether the issue is something that her office believes the local media will cover. Because of "institutional limitations" and a difficult-to-engage press, Gotbaum said it has been difficult to get attention for the issues she believes are important. Like Gotbaum and the council presidents/public advocates before her, the next public advocate will have to learn to navigate these obstacles in order to be successful.

On Tuesday, many New York City voters may go to their poll sites and wonder who they should select as Public Advocate, why does it matter and whether they believe this office serves an important function. These are all important issues to consider on Primary Day and when the next charter revision commission or local legislation raises these questions again.


September 14th, 2009, 11:22 AM
NYers: Please Vote on Tuesday -- and vote for anyone for Public Advocate EXCEPT Mark Green, who has been around the block too many times and proven himself to be a dolt on just about every pass.

January 6th, 2010, 05:35 AM
Criticized as Too Sedate, Public Advocate’s Office Intends to Get Louder


In a challenge to the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the city’s new public advocate, Bill de Blasio, will unveil a plan on Monday to train aggrieved residents to organize petition drives, demonstrations and civic actions against City Hall.

Moving swiftly to redefine a sedate office at the periphery of New York City government, Mr. de Blasio is creating a department of community organizing, which will seek to turn those who grouse about city policies and practices into advocates who band together to reshape them.

In an interview Sunday night, he said the new department could be especially effective in mobilizing parents of children in the city’s schools, a group he says has been consistently ignored by the Bloomberg administration.

The move represents a significant rethinking of the office, which has traditionally served as a quiet problem solver, responding to scattered complaints about everything from unfilled potholes to unresponsive city officials. But Mr. Bloomberg has largely filled that task with 311, the popular information hot line, and Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Betsy Gotbaum, kept a low profile over the past eight years. For much of that time, the office had been criticized as ineffectual, so much so that the City Council slashed its financing and Mr. Bloomberg called the job “a waste of everyone’s money.”

In the interview, Mr. de Blasio vowed to take the office “to a new activist level.”

“This is what government is supposed to do — channel energy and activism and achieve results for our constituents,” he said.

Mr. de Blasio has repeatedly complained that the Bloomberg administration does not promote — or permit — enough citizen debate and engagement.

“This is a city that not long ago seemed ungovernable, so a very top-down style of government has taken shape, epitomized by the current administration,” Mr. de Blasio said. “But you have to engage the grass roots, and my office will be the leading edge of that.”

To promote activism, the office will hold workshops across the city to link residents with grass-roots organizations, offer toolkits for how to advocate for policy changes, create a page on the public advocate’s Web site to connect New Yorkers with similar problems and give out awards to those who “successfully fight on behalf of their neighborhoods,” according to a copy of a news release to be distributed on Monday.

Of course, whether citizens who have complaints want to become more active is an open question. Some may simply want their problems addressed.

But the strategy is intended to broaden the public advocate’s influence when its financing is at an all-time low, with an annual budget of $1.7 million, down from $3.5 million a decade ago.

It also reflects the considerable ambitions of Mr. de Blasio, who is viewed as a possible mayoral contender in four years. The idea is not entirely new: Norman Siegel, a lawyer who also ran for public advocate last year, has called for similar outreach efforts.

In a gesture rich in symbolism, Mr. de Blasio will announce the plan with eight new City Council members, many of them community organizers elected in a wave of anti-incumbency.

Neither Mr. Bloomberg nor the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, was invited to the news conference. Margaret Chin, a newly elected councilwoman from Manhattan, said it was time for elected officials to adopt the tactics of the groups that lobby for change.

Mr. de Blasio said the focus of community organizing would be city agencies “where there is evidence of systemic failures.”

He criticized the Department of Education, citing its announcement, with scant warning, that half of a neighborhood public school would shut down and its space be given to a new charter school. “I am going to fight to make sure there is community involvement,” he said. And if the administration’s plans hurt residents, he said, “I will fight to reverse it.”

Mr. de Blasio also suggested pressuring the mayor to require that publicly subsidized development projects employ nearby residents and contain greater benefits for their neighborhoods.

Mr. de Blasio said that the public advocate would still resolve many complaints quietly, by reaching out to City Hall commissioners. But if those officials fail to respond, he pledged, he will rally residents to put public pressure on the agencies to act.

“The traditional vision was to call a press conference, issue a report, file a lawsuit,” he said. “I don’t think any of those tools, which are typically used in a drive-by manner, have the same impact as organizing communities.”


January 7th, 2010, 04:54 AM
Community Organizing

David Jones

The newly elected Public Advocate of New York City, Bill de Blasio, just announced that his office is going to train local groups and individuals to do their own community organizing in order to get government to be more responsive. At first blush, it seems a little odd to me that a government office would be training individuals and groups to organize to get government to pay attention to their legitimate concerns -- but, on reflection, he's obviously on the right track.

In a city where the incumbent mayor just spent a hundred million dollars of his own money to get reelected and lobbyists earn in the tens of millions, to be an individual or a community group with no money and no political clout attempting to get your viewpoint heard is virtually impossible unless you organize. Only 20 years ago that wasn't always the case. Nonprofit groups advocating for the poor, the disabled, and for schools were the bulwark of advocacy in New York City, supported in many instances by foundations like Ford. In addition, labor unions were also front and center in providing personnel and funding for advocacy work.

Fast forward to the present, and the number and scope of community organizing efforts have diminished dramatically. What happened and what should be done about it is still an open question. Even the community organizing that persists is under a relentless attack. The Acorn debacle, which was at least in part self-inflicted, has significantly curtailed that group's effectiveness at least for the short term.

What happened? I won't get into the problem with labor in this blog, but I do want to look at the nonprofit sector, which I know somewhat better.

The nonprofits in past decades played a significant part in assisting community-based advocacy. They were even able to do so while receiving substantial amounts of government dollars.

In New York, that underwent a radical shift when the city elected its first Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Before that, the conventional wisdom was that, in a one-party town where the Democratic Party dominated everything, attacks on the nonprofit advocates for the poor were politically impossible because the Democratic primaries, not the general elections, were the whole ball game. The working poor, black and Latino voters were the bedrock of the party support, so retaliation against vigorous community organizing just wasn't thought to be advisable.

I still remember the look of total disbelief when, as Executive Director of the New York City Youth Bureau (now the Department of Youth Services), I suggested to a very vocal advocacy group that their financial record keeping would force us to do a full audit and suspension of their city contract.

Mayor Giuliani changed all that. Suddenly, groups that even spoke up mildly were stripped of funding, in some cases nearly overnight. Particularly vulnerable were groups serving the black and Latino communities that had been supported by the Dinkins administration. That kind of regular political retaliation by City Hall stopped with the Bloomberg administration, but the chilling effect on advocacy and community organizing persists.

The other thing that changed was the commitment of large foundations to community organizing, particularly for poor black and brown New York. In a recent monograph by CSS Senior Policy Fellow Rick Cohen, "Dimensions of Racial Equity in Foundation Grantmaking," (Community Service Society, May 2009), the national trend away from advocacy and community organizing is obvious. Larger foundations like Ford and Gates do have efforts on behalf of poor people, but they often focus on non-controversial direct services and national, not local, efforts.

So de Blasio's program comes at a particularly opportune time. But I would suggest that he has to make the case to the enormous number of foundations in the city that they have to push beyond their board and staff comfort zones to provide critically needed resources to legitimate community organizations, so that a fear of losing some or all their government funding for raising their voices doesn't dominate everything they do.

With income inequality higher in New York City than anywhere else in the country, and unemployment levels for black, brown, and Asian New Yorkers likely to remain at unheard of levels for years to come, if these foundations are serious about social change and commitment, they should put up and join the public advocate's effort.