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City term limits, Atlantic Yards, and the question of David Paterson

A reader recently wondered whether Mayor Mike Bloomberg's increasingly public flirtation with an effort to extend term limits would be bad news for the Atlantic Yards opposition.

Well, it probably wouldn't be good news, given that new blood in City Hall and the City Council might offer marginally more scrutiny of the project and might question a request for more subsidies. However, it's far less relevant than getting Governor David Paterson up to speed, City Council Member Letitia James, the project's leading political opponent, told me.

The project has gone through all its public approvals, James noted, so "the question is, what is our governor prepared to do?"

Paterson, who's got his plate full, has not yet focused on Atlantic Yards, even as the Empire State Development Corporation he controls hasn't clarified the timing and scale of the project. The funding for the project remains murky, and the developer has stated that "we still need more" subsidies.

(Paterson will be speaking at a Crain's New York Business breakfast tomorrow; let's see if anyone brings up Atlantic Yards.)

Backlash emerges

The effort to extend term limits via a City Council vote (as opposed to a referendum) has provoked a backlash via good government groups and term limits proponent Ronald Lauder, reported the New York Times on Saturday.

Most City Council members support an extension (according to the Times) and many other candidates stay mum. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum is an exception, saying a change should be up to the people, while "a back room, closed door legislative deal... is a terrible, undemocratic idea."

Bloomberg redux

Bloomberg's strong support for Atlantic Yards is notably unquestioning, so another four-year term in 2009 might be more of the same--and might mean some more quiet increases in subsidies for the project.

By contrast, a somewhat more thoughtful AY supporter like Comptroller William Thompson--who has publicly questioned the project's status--might be considered a minor improvement from the perspective of AY opponents. Other than longshot candidate Council Member Tony Avella, no announced candidate (including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Rep. Anthony Weiner) has criticized Atlantic Yards.

Scrutiny from BP?

Also, an extension of term limits would keep Marty Markowitz (who disingenuously supports an extension) in the Brooklyn Borough President's office. Candidates include AY opponent Charles Barron; presumed supporter Yvonne Graham, Markowitz's deputy; and supporter-with-reservations Bill de Blasio, who's likely the front-runner. (Other rumored candidates include AY supporters Dominic Recchia and Carl Kruger.)

Markowitz would not be expected to support greater scrutiny of Atlantic Yards. Another BP might move marginally in the direction, while individual Council Members might use their positions to offer some oversight.

Changes in Council?

Whatever the result of the term limits debate, James would remain in her 35th District seat. Given that she's still on her first full term, having taken office after the assassination of James Davis, James, along with several other mid-term entrants, would have seniority under the status quo--or, later, under a term limits extension. She told me she's always opposed term limits, but also opposes a change in the law via a City Council vote rather than a referendum.

Council Member David Yassky's 33rd District seat is being contested by several candidates; among those who've gained the most contributions, Jo Anne Simon is a supporter of the BrooklynSpeaks mend-it-don't-end-it position. I'm not sure about the next two, but, Stephen Levin, aide to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, may share his boss's pro-AY stance, and Evan Thies, former aide to Yassky, may share the Council Member's conditional support. Ken Baer and Ken Diamondstone have opposed the project.

As for de Blasio's 39th District seat, Josh Skaller, Bob Zuckerman, and Craig Hammerman (both individually and in his capacity at CB 6) have offered strong criticism of Atlantic Yards, and Brad Lander, the fundraising leader, cites his early criticism and says "we should use the opportunity to either fix the flaws or reconsider the project." (Gary Reilly also opposes the project.) The debates should show candidates are more up to speed than de Blasio, who, it should be noted, appointed Lander to CB 6.

Another interesting race may emerge in the 36th District, encompassing parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where Al Vann's two terms expire at the end of next year. Writer and activist Mark Winston Griffith is a candidate and, while AY is not on his list of priorities, he has commented critically on the project, saying it "deserves further public scrutiny and debate."

The candidates positions on AY and other issues likely will be fleshed out as the campaigns begin in earnest. For now, and probably even after the 2009 election, the most important official is Paterson.


  1. There is the question of whether term limits are overall good or bad.-

    There is also the question of whether term limits will be good or bad for projects deleterious to the public health like Atlantic Yards: Does the musical chairs engendered by term limits diminish accountability or does it create politicians conscious of a broader constituency as they think sooner about where they might land next?

    Whatever the answers to these questions there is a separate question respecting the process of eliminating or modifying term limits: What is the appropriate way to change them if they are to be changed and whether that will be good or bad as respects projects deleterious to the public health like Atlantic Yards?

    If term limits which constitute the current rules-of-the-game are changed in the middle of a political race by the players themselves that changes the game to one of 52-card pick-up. If Bloomberg is the one who gets to start the game of 52-card pick-up by throwing the cards in the air, if he communicates about his plans with his real estate developer constituency before he throws the cards up into the air as he is reportedly doing, then he and his developer constituency garner an unfairly-gained advantage. Bloomberg may doing this because his current popularity ratings indicate that his chickens have still not come home to roost. Christine Quinn’s assistance to Bloomberg in this regard indicates the opposite: It indicates not that she is popular, but that she currently has less support to proceed, as she once intended, towards the office of Mayor.

    Ms. Quinn, aligning herself with the mayor, has made wrong decisions on a number of devolvement matters; Atlantic Yards, the Columbia University Expansion, and the Ruden/St. Vincent’s expansion. When it comes to her own city council district and issues like the Hudson Yards development you see more clearly from the positions she takes what the city would want if the city were her council district writ large. And isn’t that what the city is? So have some of Quinn’s chickens come home to roost?

    If term limits are to be changed, they should be changed in a fair process and not in the middle of the game. Former City Councilman (and Parks Commissioner) Henry Stern of New York Civic has written several valuable pieces in the subject. If you would like to start with one which I particularly recommend for its lucidity read “Pols Chide Mayor for Toying With Them On Term Limits By Discussing the Possibility Of Reversing Two Referenda” at

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York

  2. The important discussion should be about achieving results, not extending job duration. It is fashionable for politicians to embrace the free market, but not to emulate it. Companies set goals and objectives; if they are not met, out goes the executive. Why not set annual goals for NYC by referendum: construction of x units of affordable housing, creation of x new jobs, building x new schools, fixing x bridges, increasing the capacity of mass transit by x, lowering asthma rates by x, etc., etc. If annual goals are not met, the whole council is out, the mayor is out, etc. It's time that results matter, not the personal careers of professional politicians who produce nothing, consume scarce resources, and divert our attention from the issues. The sad truth now is that the entire City Council, the entire State Legislature, could disappear, and it simply wouldn't matter.


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