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At Borough Hall, Paterson asserts he's making tough decisions, but when it comes to Atlantic Yards, he punts (with video)

Speaking at a budget Town Hall meeting yesterday before a friendly audience at Brooklyn, Gov. David Paterson portrayed his administration as making tough decisions, speaking the truth, and maintaining accountability.

However, when he faced a tough question about the Atlantic Yards project, he deferred to the courts, somehow ignoring the fact that, under his watch, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) both approved the project and defended it to the hilt in court.

(The Times's article and blog coverage focused not on budget issues but on his public support amidst questions about his ethics and his future; ditto for the Post. Daily News columnist Bill Hammond looked at both. The Village Voice coverage, excerpted at bottom, mentioned both, including Paterson's sidestep on AY, as did the Courier-Life. The Daily Eagle somehow inflated AY costs to $7.3 billion. The Brooklyn Paper didn't mention AY.)

The video below contains segments edited from Paterson's opening address; an Atlantic Yards question from Council Member Letitia James; an AY question from Noticing New York blogger Michael D.D. White; Paterson's closing remarks; and comments from Dean Street resident Peter Krashes on Paterson's unfulfilled opportunity to create a governance structure for the project.



Tough choices

"We have tried as hard as we could in the midst of our economic crisis to remember those who don't have a voice," Paterson said in his opening remarks, acknowledging that some decisions have hurt the vulnerable and rightly angered people in the audience.

He offered a list: "In my administration, in just under two years, we have cut four and half billion dollars from health care. We've cut 1.1 billion dollars from education. We've cut our administration, our agencies, by 1.5 billion dollars, and in this year's budget we're going to cut it some more, unfortunately."

Paterson said that "we are going to make cuts that, if you told me years ago" that he'd have to make them as governor, "I probably wouldn't have believed either. But the reality is, there are pieces of legislation I introduced that I've had to veto, because we don't have the money."

"We are crossing that rubicon between recession and something else far my worse if my colleagues in the legislature and I can't close a 9.2 billion dollar deficit," he said, noting that "we are willing to be open minded, because this such a prohibitive situation that your suggestions may help us."

"Recently, I've been the target of rumors and innuendo, but it hasn't stopped me," Paterson said, gathering rhetorical steam with examples and repetition and earning applause.

"So many are going to have to pay the price that poor judgment could not alleviate years ago. Instead, what we did is we papered over deficits. We squandered surpluses. We engaged in irresponsible projections of revenues and financed unsustainable spending increases," Paterson said, unmindful of how the the ESDC's Atlantic Yards projections might be irresponsible. "Look at the results."

Welcoming questions, he said, "I know I can tell you in advance that at least four people will get up to say, 'Governor, I know how difficult this crisis is, but here's where we need to spend more money. You can do that... but remember, in the end, we're up against the wall... anything you suggest, we have to find a way to take it from someplace else to make it happen."

A question from James

As noted in the excerpts below, James raised several issues with Paterson, including Atlantic Yards, and the latter issue got no response.

But here's what she said, not completely coherently: "I know the Borough President would disagree, If you want to push out monies for this arena, I'm sure they will love it in New Jersey. I do not support it and I do believe that it's a waste of taxpayer dollars."

White's question

White noted that, in contrast to others, he wasn't asking the governor to spend more money.

"Why in this time of budget crisis is your administration allowing two to three billion dollars in no-bid subsidy to go unrecaptured to the Atlantic Yards boondoggle and why is your administration playing along with the use of a money-losing arena as a distraction from the governance issues inherent at what it is part a mega-monopoly land grab... one developer, 30 acres, the kind of eminent domain abuse that you previously opposed."

(White's estimates of subsidy, of course, are not those the state accepts, but either way, there's significant subsidy. The project would be 22 acres, not 30, so maybe he's talking about other Forest City Ratner property across Atlantic Avenue.)

Paterson responded, "To be honest with you, Mr. White, I cannot tell you, based on the case, why the Court of Appeals ruled the way they actually ruled."

Why? Because the courts defer to agencies like the ESDC as long as they seem to have acted "rationally." That's what the agency he controls argued.

"Since the project was already in implementation when I came into office, I waited for the Court of Appeals to make a decision, and they ruled the way they did," Paterson said, somehow ignoring the role of the ESDC (and Metropolitan Transportation Authority) he controls in revising the deal last June and September. "And the [Kings County] Supreme Court, just in the last week, has ruled in favor of the project as well."

(DDDB points out that a challenge to the Modified General Project Plan still awaits a court decision and that "the Court of Appeals ruling on eminent domain is something entirely different than the Chief Executive of the state deciding whether or not a white elephant, bait and switch project such as Atlantic Yards should go forward.")

"Now, the merits of your argument are certainly--this has been a debate on both sides--there are people who live in this area who are on both sides of this issue," Paterson said. "So what I'm just trying to tell you is: there was a process, the process did not work out."

I don't read Paterson's statement that "the process did not work out" as an admission of governmental inadequacy but rather as a suggestion that "the process did not work out" as his questioner would like.

"Ten years from now, either they will be right, or you will be right," Paterson concluded, "and what I didn't want to do is impose my own judgment when there has already been a court decision on the issue."

So, courts defer to an agency he controls, and then he defers to the court? He ignored a request from Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries not to use eminent domain. And in December, after the Court of Appeals decision, he promised AY opponents "an objective and fair hearing," whatever that means.

And, of course, it's highly unlikely that ten years would be enough to assess Atlantic Yards, given that the Development Agreement allows 25 years. Even former ESDC CEO Marisa Lago said the project could take "decades."

In closing

Some of Paterson's closing remarks, seen through an AY lens, contained no small measure of irony.

"I want to think all of you for bringing these questions here," the governor said. "There is a lot of anger, as the public is waking up to the fact that that government either misled the public or otherwise did not give a fair accounting... What we're trying to do... is to be blunt about the situation as it stands and be forthright with information that hopefully will give you the resources to help guide us."

"We want you to try to restore your trust in government," he said. "We want you to believe that when the government tells you something it's true. And we also want you to believe that when you address government that there will be a response."

Krashes on governance

After the event, Krashes went up to Paterson to bend his ear about the governance issue, which has been pushed by BrooklynSpeaks. Paterson didn't seem swayed.

Then, in an interview with a Channel 7 reporter, Krashes noted that Paterson could, on his own, set up governance subsidiary, with representation from local elected officials and full-time staff. "He said, 'That's an idea,'" Krashes reported.

Krashes noted that, while Paterson claims that he's fighting against vested interests, this is a question of reform. "I want him to prove something to me," he said. "It's not enough to say something happened and now we can't do anything about it. He actually has the power to do something about it."

From the Village Voice

Two Village Voice contributors covered the meeting. Tom Robbins wrote:
Paterson was on his game - proving that when it comes to rolling out figures and making reasonable and persuasive arguments he is as good as they get these days. "We are going to have to make cuts that I wouldn't have believed a few years ago," he told crowd. "What I came here to tell you today is that we are crossing that Rubicon from recession into something else." He took a couple dozen questions and dispatched them all with relative ease.

He took some small flak from council member Tish James about both Atlantic Yards and his proposed soda "fat tax" proposal which she said was "regressive." The governor, seated cross-legged in a wooden chair on a platform, said that the decision on the Yards happened on someone else's watch and that he is now just going along with an appeals court decision on it, one that "surprised him."
Robbins, though typically incisive, didn't look any deeper.

Steven Thrasher was a bit more skeptical, writing:
Councilwoman Letitia James -- who also made clear her support for the Governor -- urged Paterson to reconsider the soda tax, which she feared would be "regressive." She asked him to fill the budget gap by closing prisons upstate, and by diverting public money from the Atlantic Yards project, which is in her district and which she considers "a waste of taxpayer dollars."

Paterson defended the sugar tax, saying the state pays over 7 billion dollars a year in obesity related costs, nearly as much as it pays for smoking (8 billion). When a follow up questioner also asked him why he wasn't fighting to keep the state from paying $2.9 billion towards the Atlantic Yards "boondoggle," Paterson punted to the Court of Appeals, and tried to side-step the issue as something that was in place before he arrived and decided by the courts during his tenure beyond his control.

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