Saturday, June 19, 2010

Should the Public Advocate be in charge of overseeing CBAs? Or is some more general oversight needed?

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has issued several proposals for reforms of the City Charter, and a couple involve oversight of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs).

(He believes that the Charter Revision Commission should only place questions regarding term limits on the 2010 ballot, and to reserve action on all other issues until 2012.)

His proposals include:
• Increasing disclosure by making more government operations and decision-making available online including capital and discretionary funding requests, Requests For Proposals, Community Benefits Agreements, the responsiveness of City agencies to Freedom of Information Law requests, lobbyists visits, and other aspects of City government;

• Granting subpoena power to the Public Advocate’s office to strengthen its oversight role and empowering the office to track compliance with Community Benefits Agreements;
It certainly makes sense to put all CBAs--at least those in which the government is involved--online.

But empowering the Public Advocate to track CBA compliance is hardly a reform to inspire confidence, considering de Blasio's failure to do due diligence on Atlantic Yards and its CBA.

City oversight?

Remember, a committee of the New York City Bar Association has criticized CBAs, recommending that, with subsidized projects, the city should establish guidelines to ensure CBA transparency, representativeness, accountability, and enforceability.

In response, attorney Julian Gross, director of the San Francisco-based Community Benefits Law Center, has warned about New York's "excessive governmental involvement in CBA negotiations, both in designating favored community representatives and in shaping the substance of CBAs."

But Atlantic Yards, the city's first CBA, has been criticized enormously but was not an example of "excessive governmental involvement."

Need for accountability

It won't be easy to establish guidelines regarding CBA accountability. Consider that New York City Comptroller John Liu has established a task force to look into CBAs; it has enough balance to produce potential gridlock.

So a consensus result may end up fairly weak. Then again, it may be a better result than relying on an elected official like de Blasio, whose posture on Atlantic Yards was significantly dictated by his political allegiances.

There's no substitute for a larger framework of watchdog civic groups and journalism.

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