Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Yes, observers see the MTA deal regarding Atlantic Yards as a trigger for public authorities reform

During the segment in today's Brian Lehrer Show concerning public authorities reform, participants acknowledged concern that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's deal with developer Forest City Ratner for a piece of the Atlantic Yards site was a sweetheart deal and suggested such deals could be precluded should the legislation be signed. 



Danny Hakim, the New York Times's Albany bureau chief, noted that the law emerged from concern that oversight of the state's more than 700 authorities has been essentially ad hoc.

Though the bill had been floating around for years, its passage was "a little bit of a surprise." Hakim said, suggesting that those voting on the bill--at about two in the morning--may not have really known what they were voting on. Now Mayor Mike Bloomberg is asking Governor David Paterson to reject the bill.

Fiduciary duty

Hakim explained that Bloomberg objected to the requirement that "board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the authority they serve and also the mission of the authority as opposed to having a duty to the politician who appointed them.... He's been very clear that he expects his appointees to do what he wants them to do. The tension there is—these are supposed to be independent bodies. We do have agencies of both the city and the state government that are directly controlled by the mayor or the governor." 

Guest host Andrea Bernstein followed up: "Let’s give an example of that, the MTA when they engaged in the deal to approve the Atlantic Yards development, there was a lot of question about whether they were actually getting the best deal or whether the board members were just doing what the mayor and the governor at the time wanted them to do."

It was unclear whether she was referencing the 2005 deal for the Vanderbilt Yard or the 2009 revision of the deal.

Whither Paterson?

As a legislator, Paterson, noted Bernstein, was a champion of transparency.

"He’s still trying to find his governing philosophy," suggested Hakim.

Citizens Union weighs in

Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union, suggested that many people supported the idea of reform but are now focused on the details. "It’s a very very good bill, but it’s not a perfect bill," he said. "Let’s be blunt. This bill was passed in the dark of night. There should’ve been more discussion on this."

Dadey agreed that it was a good thing to make sure that the authorities are less accountable to the elected officials, and that’s a good thing, "because they should be acting in the public interest... That's been a problem at times."

One genesis for reform was an effort, during the push for a West Side Stadium, to have the MTA "give away, in a fire sale to a developer, the West Side railyards."

Land valuation issue

Dadey gave partial agreement to Bloomberg's concern that authorities would be straitjacketed by having to sell property only at market rates. But if Bloomberg was suggesting that the Atlantic Yards deal was a justification, Dadey wasn't buying it.

"I think [the bill] has good protections in the sense that it does prevent, like the MTA in the Atlantic Yards thing, from giving sweetheart deals to the developers," Dadey said, "but it could add to the cost of developing parcels of land that need to be developed and should be developed."

Hakim noted that the bill's sponsors think that Bloomberg's concern is false, because the deal could be done at market value, and the city, should it want to push for such things as affordable housing, could then give the developer a grant.

Going forward

Hakim predicted that the bill would be signed with the understanding that it will be amended. Dadey also predicted that there wouldn't be a veto, but the bill would be amended.

After all, the bill has been endorsed by most major newspapers and good-government groups.

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