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Markowitz's grievance against the press, his questionable charity, and the real failure of the BP's office

At the end of 2006, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz sat down for a memorable interview with the Brooklyn Paper and, as I wrote, was sometimes pensive and prideful about Atlantic Yards but more frequently combative and strident.

The thin-skinned BP has had even more reason to be exercised in recent months, as the New York Post has challenged the legitimacy of the borough presidency and the New York Daily News has uncovered Markowitz’s dubious practice of relying on an in-house charity to raise funds from supporters--including developer Forest City Ratner--who otherwise wouldn’t be able to contribute such sums to his office or campaign. The Brooklyn Paper uncovered further evidence of how six-figure FCR contributions fuel Markowitz's popular concert series.

(Photo of Markowitz welcoming NASA Astronaut Garrett Reisman, a Houston resident who has relatives in Brooklyn, to Borough Hall.)

Markowitz and defenders have cited the civic nature of the programs supported by his Best of Brooklyn charity. And the BP, in a notably aggrieved public lament two Sundays ago, attacked the press for suggesting that elected officials are corrupt. “And that's too bad, it's just too bad,” he soliloquized, during a Brooklyn Book Festival appearance. “Because, like I said, the only thing elected officials have is trust. That's all we got.”

Well, let’s put aside Markowitz’s polarizing support for Atlantic Yards, which probably will define his legacy. Let’s take Markowitz at his word that programs like the book festival and his summer concert series and his teen summer jobs program are genuine efforts, however funded, to serve his constituency. Let’s take supporters of the borough presidencies at their word when they say that the offices, however politically impotent, serve as a counterweight to a strong mayor.

Markowitz’s failure

Granting all that--and there are many caveats about Markowitz’s performance, as I’ll detail--I think that Markowitz has not used his office to empower Brooklynites to participate in democratic self-governance, especially regarding land use issues. He has a staffer to write proclamations but won’t answer tough but serious press questions about Atlantic Yards, such as the follow-up I sought regarding his traffic recommendations.

Rather than beef up community boards with training on land use issues, as has the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Markowitz has played politics with appointments, targeting members who didn't support Atlantic Yards. (Had Markowitz taken land-use issues more seriously, how might the AY proposal have evolved?)

And he has not used his budget or bully pulpit to highlight best practices of community boards, ones that make their work more accessible to the public. (Why can’t all CBs learn from Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Brooklyn CB 6, and post their documents online?)

Markowitz may be “on the block,” as his promotional Brooklyn!! publication regularly proclaims. And Markowitz may indeed remain politically popular. But Brooklyn is not a cult of personality.

The Post on the BP budgets

The latest round of criticism began two months ago. A 7/20/08 New York Post article headlined BEEPS' BIG SIS-BOOM-BUCKS: BOROUGH 'CHEERLEADERS' GET MILLION$ FOR DRIVERS, AIDES & AIDES' AIDES, slammed the BPs’ offices:
The city's five borough presidents get tens of millions in taxpayer dollars for chauffeurs, staffs of up to about 80 and discretionary spending - all so they can meet a whirlwind schedule that includes ribbon-cuttings, graduation speeches, community meetings and honorary breakfasts, a Post investigation found.

Called "glorified cheerleaders" by critics, the presidents' roles have become questionable to the point that the Charter Revision Commission is expected to explore changing - or even abolishing - the five offices when it convenes this year, sources told The Post.

Former City Councilman Kenneth Fisher, who once ran for borough president, said, "They either have to be made stronger or weaker."

...Gene Russianoff, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said: "They can be very effective. They are a connection between the people and the government."

Markowitz, the Post reported, has the most staffers of all the boroughs, with 84 staffers as of May. (He has fewer working on land use than in Stringer’s office, however.)

As the Post noted, until 1999, when the Board of Estimate was found unconstitutional and dissolved, the borough presidents lost their capacity to weigh in on land use issues. In 2002, they lost their ability to appoint members of the Board of Education. The Post also pointed to the launch of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 311 hot line as reducing the ombudsman role of the BP offices.

So what do the BPs do? Two top roles are the appointment of community board members and the issuance of advisory opinions on land-use matters--the kind of things that don’t make it into his publication Brooklyn!! (And let's not forget Markowitz's one appointment to the City Planning Commission; his appointee, real estate executive--and political contributor--Dolly Williams, had to resign over an Atlantic Yards-related ethics violation, albeit three years after the complaint was filed.)

The Post editorial

An 7/22/08 editorial, headlined NIX THE BEEPS, the Post argued:
What's overpaid, underworked and goes "Beep! Beep!"?

New York City's borough presidents - five jokes who might actually be funny, if they weren't so ridiculously expensive.

The borough presidencies, once positions of real power, were dramatically degraded 20 years ago by charter "reform."

Today, they are impotent anachronisms.

While the Post called for the next Charter Revision Commission to ditch them, it acknowledged that won’t happen. But there is a legitimate question of what they could and should do.

The Post follow-up

An 8/25/08 New York Post article headlined BEEP PROJECTS REAP BIZ BUCKS revealed that both Markowitz and Stringer “operate nonprofits that solicit cash from big companies” in excess of what they could contribute politically.

Markowitz’s Best of Brooklyn raised $1.2 million in 2007 for projects like sending kids to summer camp and the Brooklyn Book Festival. "BPs have no legislative role whatsoever, and The Post should applaud the fact that our office encourages public-private partnerships for the public good," Markowitz told the newspaper.

As the Post pointed out, the Nets and Forest City Ratner, both donors, have benefited “from Markowitz's cheerleading” for the Atlantic Yards, giving between $5,000 and $20,000, according to documents filed with the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB).

Meeting over issues

On September 8, Markowitz hosted a luncheon at Junior’s that served as the semi-annual meeting of the borough presidents to discuss issues of mutual importance.

Agenda items, according to a Markowitz press release, discussed included keeping or doing away with term limits, the City budget, mayoral control over public schools and budget cuts at the Department for the Aging (DFTA).

Markowitz, as we know, wants to get rid of term limits and serve a third term. I thought it was disingenuous for the publisher of Brooklyn!! to declare that elections are the equivalent of term limits.

The schedules

A September 14 Post article, headlined BIG BEEPING DEAL: DAY IN LIFE OF BOROUGH BIGS 'PACKED' WITH THE SMALL STUFF, detailed the seemingly skimpy schedules of the city's $160,000-a-year borough presidents.

Given that the schedules for a week in early August were probably lighter than usual, the Post wasn’t being quite fair. Markowitz told the newspaper: "I enjoy making the role of borough president relevant by attending and hosting many events and having a presence in the lives of fellow Brooklynites."

And the Post offered this conclusion, attributed to anonymous critics:
But critics wonder if the whirlwind of ribbon-cutting and cheerleading is worth the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars allotted to the five pols for supplies, chauffeurs, dozens of vaguely described staff slots, and discretionary money. Some hope the upcoming Charter Revision Commission retools their roles or does away with them altogether.

The Markowitz aggrievement

Markowitz’s complaints at the press were aired that day at a Brooklyn Book Festival panel, where he was supposed to introduce legendary writers Jimmy Breslin (left) and Pete Hamill. The former was late, so Markowitz and Hamill were talking to fill time. Hamill asked Markowitz “what's the most surprising thing you learned... just about the nature of the job, the nature of Brooklyn?”

“There was a time, when I started out as a Senator in 1979, when press would call, I would be thrilled to speak with them, and I would share with them ideas and what we're doing,” Markowitz replied. “Today, when press calls, we put them on hold and I ask my staff, did I say something, did I do something wrong, did anyone mess up, are we doing...”

He revved up: “Because 99% of the time, 99%, they only call for one reason, because they think evil exists and they automatically assume that every elected official is a bum. Period. A bum. Every elected official is corrupt. I'm sorry to share that. Every elected office, they do things underhanded, undercover. It's unbelievable.”

“And even when you try to defend--you show them what it is that you've done, when they make the inquiry, I have to tell you, they've already written the end of their story, they just go through the motions of asking you, so that they fill in a little bit,” Markowitz continued to criticize the Post article for being unbalanced--and he had a point, though his protests seem a little precious, given what later emerged.

Then he complained how hard it was to get the press to write about positive projects like the book festival. “And it's worked out beautifully. Would they cover this? No. Not a word,” he said in a stage whisper. “In the New York Post, not a word. And in the Daily News, they gave us a little story about it beforehand, will there be anything afterwards? Guarantee there won't be.”

He was right, but the Book Festival did get a lot of press, including from the New York Times and Village Voice, and was well-attended and successful, so maybe the BP protested a bit much.

Then Markowitz went on to assert that the tabloid editors drive their reporters to invent issues. I think he’s partly right, but, on the other hand, all sorts of legitimate issues are ignored by the tabloids, including aspects of Atlantic Yards.

I should add that Markowitz did draw healthy applause when he declared that “most folks in Brooklyn, they know me, they know me. I'm all right. I'm fine.”

Then he went off on his riff on how “the only thing elected officials have is trust. That's all we got. If you can't trust people like me then this stuff is not working,” he said, faster and more frenzied. “That's how I feel. It could be working better. Don't get me wrong. It could be working better.” He recovered a bit, pulling out a non sequitur applause line: “And that'll happen in 130-odd days when Mr. Bush goes back to Crawford.”

Except the demise of George W. Bush won’t solve some of the knotty problems in Brooklyn.

The Daily News scoop

Two days later, on September 16, the Daily News reported, in an article headlined Marty Markowitz steers big bucks to nonprofit without city scrutiny, that Markowitz distributed $680,496 in taxpayer dollars to his own organization, Best of Brooklyn, without competitive bidding or approval from other city agencies or boards.

Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union told the newspaper, “If it's not illegal, it certainly raises some very serious ethical questions and it should be banned." Particularly questionable is that four of the 18 no-bid contracts were for $24,999, just a dollar less than the total that would trigger review by the city controller. Markowitz claimed the numbers were coincidental (doubtful), and that it would take too long to bid out contracts (maybe).

Three of the charity’s seven board members are on Markowitz's staff, the Daily News reported, and Markowitz got a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board to allow his staffers to work for Best of Brooklyn on government time.

The next day follow-up

The next day, the Daily News offered an article headlined Marty Markowitz: $680G is legit,
not adding much beyond some quotes from Markowitz:
"This is a matter of public trust and I take this compliance very seriously," Markowitz said. "I'm thrilled that it has received the public and private support it has - and proud of what we've been able to accomplish."

The editorial

The Daily News didn’t buy the explanation, editorializing on September 17, Marty helps himself:
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz lets nothing stand between him and the glory of Kings County - and, more important, the greater glory of Marty Markowitz.

Obstacles like procurement rules and public disclosure? As he would say, Fuhgeddaboudit.

...This is yet another case for the Department of Investigation, and it should prompt the enactment of a new regulation aimed at officials, like Markowitz, who should know better:

You can't give city money to yourself. For any reason. Least of all to buy political goodwill.

The next follow-up

On September 18, the Daily News reported, in an article headlined Brooklyn president Marty Markowitz's no-bid contracts eyed by controller:
:No-bid contracts issued by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's office look like an attempt to skirt the law - and may warrant law enforcement scrutiny, Controller William Thompson told the Daily News Thursday.

"I'm not sure if we would take a look and dig into this one, or if an agency like the Department of Investigation might not take a look," Thompson said.

That’s faily noncommittal, but at least kept the story alive.

The Brooklyn Paper finds Ratner funds

A September 18 Brooklyn Paper article, headlined Marty’$ borough haul, added to the story with a bit of a scoop:
But the line between government responsibilities and charity work is blurry. Markowitz, a longtime supporter of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, received $200,000–$350,000 from Ratner’s company last year for his concert series. And Markowitz’s Best of Brooklyn also received contributions of $15,000–$60,000 from Forest City Ratner Companies, a Ratner executive and a subsidiary.

That sum--$200,000 to $350,000--is significant. I'm told by the Brooklyn Paper the the numbers come from the Conflict of Interest Board. Note that Mayor Mike Bloomberg steered $900,000 of city funds to the concert series, as well.

Blasts from the past

Over 15 years, apparently, there's been sporadic discussion about the role of the borough presidents. In the wake of the elimination of the Board of Estimate, the Times, in a 2/24/93 article headlined Borough Presidents Seek Stronger Role in City, reported:
Borough President Howard Golden of Brooklyn yesterday called on the State Legislature to study ways of giving the five boroughs renewed influence in New York City's government. His plan won immediate support from the other borough presidents.

Mr. Golden proposed the creation of a Commission on Borough Governance to examine ways to streamline the city bureaucracy and give the boroughs a stronger role in service delivery, planning and budgeting. His proposition is an effort to reclaim the power lost in the sweeping overhaul of municipal government that eliminated the Board of Estimate.

In a 12/23/93 follow-up, headlined Giuliani Weighs Return of Control Over Some Services to 5 Boroughs, the Times reported:
Mayor-elect Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested yesterday that he was willing to return to the five boroughs some of City Hall's control over service delivery, and said he had asked the borough presidents to draft plans for an experiment in such decentralization.

Mr. Giuliani said he would consider decentralization in areas like sanitation, road maintenance and repair, parks and environmental protection, and he pointed out that the Parks Department already has borough-level commanders.

I’m not sure any of this ever occurred. So it’s time for some public discussion and professional analysis of the role of the BPs.