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Blurring the lines: Forest City external affairs chief Cotton helps with de Blasio inauguration

"Testing seats I won't be sitting on"
It's nice that new Mayor Bill de Blasio could call on volunteers with experience in government to help with the inauguration. And it's nice that people would donate their time.

But when those volunteers also represent their company at the mayor's office--a company known to push hard for advantage--doesn't that get a little complicated?

"Grateful to be asked to support mayor @BilldeBlasio on this important day--congratulations and good luck!" tweeted Forest City Ratner's Ashley Cotton.

Cotton describes herself on Twitter as "brooklyn resident. recovering public servant. fcrc employee," but she's not just any employee. She's Senior VP, Director of External Affairs, and Chief of Staff, and oversees the developer's interaction with government.

Cozy ties to Forest City

de Blasio had already put Cotton's boss, CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin, on his transition team. So Cotton's stint reinforced the ties between the new mayor and Brooklyn's most powerful developer.

And that, I suspect, makes it more likely that de Blasio will be asked for favors or other special treatment--and less likely the mayor will try to hold Forest City accountable.

After all, despite stressing that the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) must be enforced, de Blasio failed to criticize Forest City's failure to hire a promised Independent Compliance Monitor.

So we should keep watch to see whether the mayor--who's pledged to get the Atlantic Yards housing built--offers carrots, not sticks.

The benefits of volunteerism

Cotton has experience in both the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor's Office, so it's understandable how she might contribute. She volunteered at the Mayor's Office for most of November 2012 to help with the recovery after Hurricane Sandy.

As I wrote then, her volunteer stint was surely a public-spirited gesture, and it was cleared by lawyers. But, I wrote, it also might serve to smooth the relationship with City Hall and advantage Forest City.

Same with the inaugural. Just think: how would it look if mayoral events were staffed by people who do business with the city?

(I don't know how long Cotton was volunteering; she didn't respond to my queries. It's not clear to me whether she was "asked to support" de Blasio by his office or by her boss.)

Blurring the lines between company and government

No one elected her, but sometimes Cotton acts as if she still speaks for the government.

At a public meeting in June 2012, Brooklyn Community Board 2 Chairman John Dew asked about the police presence at the Barclays Center: "In this particular instance, is there an opportunity to bill back to Forest City Ratner?”

“The answer is no,” replied Cotton, taking the question, though there were city police and special projects officials in the room.

After all, her loyalty is to her employer, not the public interest. Asked last February, Cotton said she didn't have any information about hiring that Independent Compliance Monitor but claimed "the entire CBA monitors us on a regular basis."

Actually, most of the groups have no web sites or other ways for the public to gain information about them, and all have received financial support from Forest City. That was the point of having an Independent Compliance Monitor. 

Indeed, ACORN's Bertha Lewis in 2006 claimed the monitor would oversee implementation and thus foster the CBA's legitimacy. Then again, when asked about the missing monitor, CBA signatory the Rev. Herbert Daughtry in January 2012 said, "The point is that I feel, whether they [FCR] have reneged on promises, I’m not concerned about it."

Contributing to de Blasio

Cotton was a contributor to de Blasio's campaign. Oddly enough, the campaign finance report cited her as working at NYC EDC as of January 2013--an error that recalls that blurred line.

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