Friday, October 17, 2008

At the term limits hearing, AY opponents and supporters make their mark

I wasn't able to make it to the marathon (10.5 hours) hearing yesterday on whether the City Council should overturn voter-imposed term limits. (Heck, I wouldn't have gotten in, unless I came way late.) Still, thanks to the New York Times's extensive live-blogging (evening and afternoon), there were definitely some Atlantic Yards references (and perhaps more than reported).

That makes sense, because, as I wrote yesterday, Bloomberg's effort, like Atlantic Yards, is a backroom deal that has generated much outrage. NY reported that 75 percent of those polled favor a referendum, rather than a Council vote.

(Photos by Michael D.D. White. The Times has video, with Mario Cuomo, Letitia James, and especially Charles Barron.)

The fundamental lie

First, let's remember that the move to get Bloomberg a third term began well before the financial crisis. The Times's article today summarized the issue:
For more than nine hours, the hearing returned repeatedly to a single point of dispute: Those backing the mayor say the Wall Street crisis creates an extraordinary situation that warrants revising term limits so Mr. Bloomberg can remain in office and manage the city’s finances. Those opposed say the economic distress is a convenient excuse for a power grab by a billionaire with contempt for the democratic process.


However, it's not a matter of dispute. As the New York Post reported in a 7/27/08 article headlined BIGS BACK LAW CHANGE TO KEEP MIKE:
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said the business world considers Bloomberg its "first choice" and is primed to forge plans to help him after the presidential election.

"That's when they will look seriously at the candidates out there and determine whether or not they think an effort to change term limits is plausible," she said.


Council Member Charles Barron also had a retort yesterday (as reported on the Times's CityRoom blog, source of most of the paragraphs below):
Mr. Felder tried to cut off Mr. Barron, but Mr. Barron was undeterred. “It was under Mayor Bloomberg — under his watch, that Wall Street collapsed,” Mr. Barron continued, adding, “If he’s so sharp, a big-time businessman, why didn’t he foresee this?” he asked of the crisis. “Not only did he not foresee it, what he did was come in and cut this budget. He’s closed down seniors’ centers and youth centers. He robbed the poor and gave to the rich. And you’re going to push Bloomberg on us.”

Dismissing the public

Bloomberg, according to the AP, waved off the opposition:
At a separate news conference Thursday, he dismissed the opposition as a "handful of people" who manage to seem like a bigger group because of their determination and organization.


That's even less plausible than Bruce Ratner saying, upon the unveling of the Atlantic Yards project in December 2003, "I have never, ever seen a project get less protest than this."

Rent-a-crowd

A delicious detail; the room filled up with Bloomberg supporters, who wouldn't say anything to the press about who they were or who organized them. The AP reported: The mayor didn't deny that his people were paid, but a spokesman said later that all the supporters who were urged to attend on the mayor's behalf were recruited as volunteers.

In the Times, columnist Clyde Haberman wrote:
The room was packed with spectators. Dozens of seats were filled with people carrying green signs bearing slogans like “Democrats for Choices: Extend Term Limits.” They were on the mayor’s side. (Essentially, he and his minions assert that by taking away the people’s right to decide the future of term limits, they are actually increasing the voters’ ballot options in next year’s municipal elections. In other words, less choice means more choice. Orwell, anyone?)

The sign holders resisted efforts to find out who they were and why they had gone to City Hall. Everything about them screamed rent-a-crowd.


And Council Member Letitia James, a lawyer by training, impeached the absent witness, according to the Times:
Councilwoman Letitia James, who supports a public referendum on the matter, quoted the journalist Edward R. Murrow as saying, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

She added forcefully, “‘It would be an absolute disgrace to go around the public will.’ Those are not my words. Those are the words of Mayor Bloomberg in 2005.”


(Graphic from New York Post. Click to enlarge.)

Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez took on the curious logic that a City Council vote would be more democratic than a referendum:
Bloomberg would have us believe the votes of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are less "representative" than that of 51 councilmembers, who also happen to be voting to extend their terms.


"Shotgun marriage"

The woman who launched the fight against Atlantic Yards, via the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, got a chance to speak only late in the evening, on the last panel:
Patti Hagan of Brooklyn thanked the Council, sarcastically, for holding “a shotgun hearing on the just-announced shotgun marriage of Bloomberg and Quinn.” She said she joined her representative, Councilwoman Letitia James, “in opposition to the Bloomberg and Quinn nuptials.” She described a “junta” of wealthy executives and officials that included Daniel L. Doctoroff, Steven Ross, Stephen M. Roth, and Bruce C. Ratner.

Also testifying was a member of the Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn advisory board:
Christabel Gough of Greenwich Village. She urged the Council to reject the mayor’s proposal. The Council’s power to amend the Charter, she said, was “never intended” to be used to “thwart the will of the voters.” She accused the mayor of exacerbating the real estate bubble through zoning and economic development policies that she said have displaced middle- and working-class people. She accused the mayor of “reckless disregard for people with modest means.”

CBA supporters:

One moment sounded a bit like August 2006, time of the AY public hearing:
Marie Louis, a Brooklyn resident, began by thanking Jesus. “Our city and nation are in financial and economic crisis,” she said. “We should have the option of re-electing a proven effective, independent and experienced leader like Michael Bloomberg, as well as Speaker Quinn and many in the City Council.”

Ms. Louis praised the mayor’s PlaNYC environmental initiative and spoke favorably about the community benefits agreement arranged for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.


That would be Marie Louis of Community Benefits Agreement signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), funded in part by Forest City Ratner (though not nearly to the $5 million level once hoped).

The Atlantic Yards CBA, of course, has nothing to do with Mayor Bloomberg or the City Council, though CBAs elsewhere, such as Los Angeles, have been ratified by the City Council, which implies greater oversight and enforceability. While Bloomberg appeared at the AY CBA signing event, he was a witness only. (Note that the claim that $3.5 billion--now $4 billion--would be "coming to our community" is hardly accurate.)

Also testifying was BUILD CEO James Caldwell:
James Caldwell was the first up. “I support Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to extend term limits,” he said. The proposal was not an effort to “harbor political power,” he said, adding, “The financial crisis of our times calls for an individual equipped with the business skills and credentials that our current mayor possesses and offers.”


Process issues

AY opponent Michael White had a neat moment:
Michael D. D. White, a lawyer who blogs at The Huffington Post, was the next up.

Referring to the two-minute limit on testimony, he said, “I’d like to have my limits extended to five minutes, please.” When Mr. Felder politely declined, Mr. White said, “You don’t like the rules being changed in the middle of the game.” That retort prompted applause from several of the remaining audience members — there are a few dozen now, down from hundreds earlier.


Would you believe that horse-drawn carriages got more democracy?
Ben Haber said it was a disgrace for the council to hold just two days of hearings on term limits. By comparison, the body held nine hearings on horse-drawn carriages, he said. “What is your objection to a referendum?” he asked. “Are you afraid you won’t win? The fix is in here, and it’s terrible.

Former Parks Department head and City Council Member Henry Stern, now of NY Civic, was dismayed:
“I must say this current action shocks me” more than any other public dispute over the years, he said. Mr. Stern said “there is a very good argument for three terms instead of two,” but that for the Council acting on its own seemed like “a putsch” and “sleazy.”


Bloomberg's power

White, in a post on his Noticing New York blog, noted that Bloomberg has amassed significant influence through charitable contributions. (Testifying at right is Susan Freedman of the Public Art Fund, one of those Bloomberg backers.)

Others picked it up, including the most prominent elected official opposing Atlantic Yards:
Councilwoman Letitia James, Democrat of Brooklyn, who has emerged as one of the most eloquent opponents of the mayor’s plan to change term limits, said that the mayor had shown unprecedented personal charity and generosity to nonprofit groups that serve the poor, but said that some charities had become “dependent” on that largess. She reiterated her point that no one is indispensable, however, and cited several policy areas — including food stamps — where, she argued, that Bloomberg administration has not made things easier for poor people.

AY opponent Jim Vogel (whose name the Times misspelled) of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods also picked up the issue:
Next up: James Vogul. “This method of altering term limits is another method of warping our system,” he said. He said that the mayor’s personal contributions to philanthropies and agencies — many of which also receive city financing — had warped the public discourse. “No wonder there’s a Hallelujah chorus we’ve seen tonight, calling for an extension,” he said, suggesting that some of the witnesses who testified in support of extending term limits did so because their organizations received financing from the mayor.


Vogel, yes, mentioned Atlantic Yards in the testimony he sent me:
“Mayor Bloomberg has never been very big on the will of the voters. Within 2 weeks of being sworn into his first administration he said he felt New York City’s building review process was onerous and that he would do all in his power to get around it. The results are all around us: a deadly joke of a Buildings Department; cranes falling on citizens; eminent domain abuse; how many millions in unnecessary subsidies to builders, like Atlantic Yards; holes in the ground that will be with us for decades; millions of square feet of unnecessary and unoccupied office space. But he’s a big picture guy who must have seen this coming. During his administration manufacturing and light industry were further driven from the city to make way for real estate development. The City budget became even more dependent on real estate, financial services, and Wall Street. And now we’re crippled. Yeah, good job on that economy!”

More AY opponents

The Times's coverage didn't say whether they spoke against Atlantic Yards, but I know these two speakers are AY opponents:
Schellie Hagan [sister of Patti], a constituent of Councilwoman Letitia James, whom she called “Letitia Braveheart James.” She said that Speaker Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg had engaged in an unseemly “pas de deux.”

Helois Greenberg [actually: Heloise Gruneberg], with an organization called Brooklyn Vision, said the only legitimate way to change term limits would be through another popular vote.

Development questions

The issue of development came up:
A man named Bo Samajopoulos took a different point of view, saying Mayor Bloomberg’s administration had resulted in “uncontrolled development”;


Union officials, supporters of AY, thought differently:
Gary La Barbera, president of the New York City Central Labor Council and president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Joint Council 16 and Local 282, led the second panel. He invoked the economic crisis. Mr. La Barbera said that changing the law was not an endorsement of any particular candidate but merely a way to “give voters the option of supporting the same elected officials” who have “made New York City a great place to work and visit.”

Edward J. Malloy, president of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said the “unexpected challenges” of today mean that the public should be “allowed to re-elect the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents and members of the Council.” Mr. Malloy said the “democratic principles underlying our local government will remain strong” if the Council votes to change the term limits law, as it has the authority to do.


Yassky decides?

Did the uncommitted Brooklyn Council Member David Yassky take a stand? The Times reported:
Responding to Councilman David Yassky, a Brooklyn Democrat, who called the proposed term limits change “corrosive” to democracy, Mr. Koch disagreed.


An echo from AY?

And what about this chap:
Next up: a man wearing sunglasses and identifying himself only as Mr. X. He appeared to suggest that term limits should apply nationally.


That must have been the inimitable William Stanford, aka "Mr. X."

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