Department of Investigation, Independent Budget Office and Community Boards Should Report to Public Advocate
Some clever wag once defined election day as, “the day promises end and excuses begin”.
That’s clearly what some of the candidates in the current public advocate race intend. Promises to fix everything from the MTA to NYCHA to the city’s crumbling infrastructure abound, along with nebulous claims to “hold the mayor accountable”.
But the City Charter offers few means to do any of those things. The public advocate’s powers are quite limited, particularly given that it is the second-highest office in the city and one of only three independently elected city-wide.
The public advocate can introduce legislation in the city council, but cannot vote. If there’s a shortcoming in a city agency, he or she can report it, but to the offending agency (or the council and the mayor.) And the PA can name people to sit on some city boards and commissions.
That’s basically the totality of the powers of the office. The charter doesn’t even specifically empower the public advocate to sue, as Tish James, the former public advocate, discovered when her lawsuits were dismissed for lack of standing. The public advocate is exactly as the title implies: an advocate for city residents; the public’s ombudsman.
But the office should be better and more than the platform for higher office it has mostly been. It should act as a watchdog of the mayor, a champion of community boards, a “second set of eyes” on the comptroller, and an “inspector general”, of sorts, of city agencies.
That’s why I will pursue these four important changes to the city charter and state law when I am elected public advocate.
First, as was first suggested by election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder, of the Strook law firm, I will propose to empower the public advocate with subpoena power to obtain evidence necessary to ensure the proper, efficient, and faithful functioning of city government. Then, I will propose to amend the city charter so that the Department of Investigation reports to the public advocate, not the mayor. Mayor de Blasio’s firing of Mark Peters, the former head of the DOI, highlighted the inherent and unconscionable conflict that can arise when the investigator reports to the investigated. Coincident to both those initiatives, I will work to codify the public advocate’s standing to sue on New Yorkers’ behalf in the courts where government has let them down.
Second, I will work to amend the charter so that the Independent Budget Office reports to the Office of the Public Advocate so that I can critique the mayor’s and the council’s budgets and spending, as well as the pronouncements of the city comptroller, particularly those about the city’s pension funds. The director of the IBO is appointed by the comptroller, the public advocate, and by one borough president and one council member named by their peers. Thus, half the people naming the IBO director could have a say in muting the IBO’s critique of their performance. The IBO needs to be truly “independent”.
Third, I will work to represent the city’s 59 community boards in matters affecting ULURP the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure; CEQRA, the City Environmental Quality Review Act; and community boards’ budget priorities. Community boards are run by volunteer community leaders and a small, city-paid, staff of district managers and assistants. Few of the paid staff are lawyers or urban planners. The boards have nearly no resources to support their decisions if they are challenged by developers and city agencies. The public advocate should have the power to bolster the boards’ case before City Planning Commission, the city council, and, if necessary, the courts.
Finally, I will pursue a legislative change to the New York State Urban Development Corporation Act to provide a 30 day public comment period before state agencies are allowed to sidestep ULURP and CEQRA. The powers conferred by the legislature for General Project Plans to do slum clearance and to build public facilities without input from local officials, community boards, and other stakeholders was one of the contributing factors to the failure of the Amazon deal.
These are clearly defined, obtainable, “first steps” necessary to pursue more ambitious objectives. And I will work relentlessly to achieve each of them to improve the government for the people of the City of New York, starting on Day One.
Yes, that’s a campaign promise. And no, there will be no excuse.
That “clever wag” who defined election day will be disappointed.
 Clark, Dan M. “Court of Appeals Rejects James’ Appeal Over Authority to Sue as NYC Public Advocate” News. New York Law Journal. October 11, 2018
 Goldfeder, Jerry. “An Agenda for New York City’s Public Advocate”. Opinion (Letters). The New York Times. September 30, 2018.
 New York City Charter, §259(a)
 Urban Development Corporation Act, §16(3)
Anthony “Tony” Herbert is the founder of Advocates without Borders, and a candidate for public advocate in the February 26th special election.