Friday, October 24, 2008

"It's just not right": City Council term limits override recalls AY hearing plaint

Who would've guessed that Mayor Mike Bloomberg's successful effort to have the City Council overturn and extend voter-imposed term limits (for themselves, Borough Presidents, and citywide office holders) would make the Atlantic Yards approval process look like an exercise in direct democracy?

The Atlantic Yards project was announced in December 2003; in September 2005, the Empire State Development Corporation began the process of the environmental review, which took 15 months.

Bloomberg's power move took all of three weeks. Of course, as with Atlantic Yards, he had supporters lined up.

Supporters' main justification--that the fiscal crisis required stability in office--was bogus. Most of those who will benefit from the opportunity to run again won't help with the fiscal crisis; after all, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz knows more about organizing concert series than municipal finance and some City Council members, if you hear them talk,are not the brightest bulbs.

And it has no bearing on Bloomberg's move to seek a third term, which emerged months ago, as business leaders expressed their desire to have him stay. (Michael D.D. White eviscerates the argument about Bloomberg's financial acumen.)

That's why City Council Member Letitia James (picture from NY Times), a leader of the opposition to term limits (and, not incidentally, to Atlantic Yards) declared, "This is a defining moment, a game-changing moment, that marks not the end of a process, but the beginning of a process.” She must've been hinting at litigation.

In the Observer, she was quoted: "I believe that this is really all about a legacy—about Moynihan Station, about Willets Point, about the West Side, about Ground Zero, and yes, about Atlantic Yards; and about the displacement of low, moderate and working families in New York City. Let me end by decrying, let the people decide."

Had Atlantic Yards gone through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the City Council would've had a vote; at the least, dissenters (on both term limits and AY) like James and Council Member Charles Barron would've had a voice. (DDDB expresses no "surprise that this Mayor who unilaterally took the decision making power over Atlantic Yards away from the City Council, fostering Bruce Ratner's land grab, took the next step and grabbed the power, today, with strong arm tactics. What is a bit surprising is that the body whose power was usurped by the Mayor for Atlantic Yards allowed him to do it again.")

Public frustrated

As with the epic Atlantic Yards hearing in August 2006--remember CB 2 Chairperson Shirley McRae's letter of complaint about favoritism at the door--many people couldn't get into City Council last week to testify or today to witness the vote.

The New York Times reported that one of them Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, which has led opposition. "It’s outrageous that they are keeping people out of the meeting,” he said, “They know that this meeting would draw a lot of interest from the public. And they should have made some provisions to accommodate the public.”

In fact, the ItsOurDecision blog reported that security guards today were clamping down not on the rush to a self-serving vote but on people carrying signs larger than 8" x 11".

The "violator" pictured here, with a sign asserting, "When Christine Quinn opens her mouth, Michael Bloomberg's words come out," is Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, the first person to organize opposition to Atlantic Yards.

The tentacles of influence

As Noticing New York blogger Michael D.D. White has pointed out, Bloomberg, Markowitz, and Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner wield influence via a web of charitable donations and transfers of governmental funds.

Assuming a legal challenge to the term limits override is unsuccessful, expect Council Members like James and Bill de Blasio to be punished by Quinn and Bloomberg, who will instead direct discretionary funds to more pliant representatives. In fact, such power politics likely got Council Member Darlene Mealy to change her mind, according to the Times.

Ripple effects

The decision yesterday will have enormous ripple effects, likely causing two-term Council Members to seek a relatively safe (because of the power of incumbency) third term rather than pursue a more competitive citywide office. Will Council Member David Yassky--who somehow remained undecided until he yesterday supported an amendment for a referendum, then, when it failed, supported Bloomberg's bill--run for Comptroller, as his web site indicates?

Will de Blasio continue his campaign to unseat Markowitz? Unlikely; I bet he'll try to keep a relatively safe seat. (James is actually still on her first full term--she replaced the assassinated James E. Davis.) In fact, a host of spirited Council candidates (e.g., Mark Winston Griffith) just saw their chances severely reduced.

The role of the press

The three main daily newspapers all lined up to support Bloomberg's effort, and that will tarnish their reputation as much as it tarnishes his legacy. Remember what Times editorial board member Carolyn Curiel said: "We are reasoned, in how we come to opinion. But no, it's not a democracy; it's reflective of the spirit of the Times." And that spirit includes "the opinion of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr."

Yesterday, the Times editorial page acknowledged that the public was overwhelmingly against the City Council voting to overturn term limits, but still insisted term limits were bad public policy and should be extended. (They may not be good public policy, but the issue, of course, is changing the rules without a referendum or Charter Commission, and the undeniable power of the mayor's $100 million campaign war chest. Polls indicated an overwhelming 89% against the Council action.)

The Times editorial page didn't acknowledge the public hearing process, in which Bloomberg recruited beneficiaries of his charities to speak on his behalf. (Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone and the hero of Paul Tough's new book, Whatever It Takes, earned Tom Robbins's scorn.)

The Times, actually, was less brazen when the Atlantic Yards project reached the Public Authorities Control Board for final approval in December 2006. Whle the Post and the News endorsed the project, the Times was silent. I speculated that the Times, while editorially in favor of the project, was unwilling to confront the reality of its own reporting, which had raised major qualms about the credibility of Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano and the agency's work.

"Just not right"

The whole episode yesterday recalled a moment in the 8/23/06 hearing (transcript) on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Late into the epic hearing, Steve Espinola, a member of the Prospect Heights Block Association (a member organization of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods), criticized the Empire State Development Corporation for scheduling a follow-up community forum at a very inconvenient time

"I want to note, again, that you have scheduled a hearing the night of the democratic primary," Espinola said. "By picking this date, the Empire State Development Corporation is giving us all the unfortunate message that it does not respect our City's democratic process. Certainly you could have picked another night. It's just not right. It's just not right."

Espinola wasn't ranting; rather, he had the deeply wounded tone of someone who didn't think his government could do such a thing to his community.

Yesterday was another such day.

Haberman: can New Yorkers believe Bloomberg?

New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who, like all the other metro columnists in the city took a pass on Atlantic Yards, writes today:
Having legislatively muscled his way into a possible third term as mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg now faces what may be a more onerous challenge: How to convince New Yorkers that they can believe a single thing he says.

Two other columnists have paid attention to Atlantic Yards. Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica has been consistently critical; he wrote of the term limits override:
If Mike Bloomberg is such a beloved, indispensable figure in our city, how come he has to keep spending so much of his own money to be mayor?

And Daily News editorial page columnist Errol Louis has been an AY cheerleader--and a forceful opponent of Bloomberg's machinations.

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