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Markowitz on the relationship with donor FCR: "I don't see the slightest conflict"

As I wrote Tuesday, in his now-traditional end-of-the-year interview with the Brooklyn Paper's Gersh Kuntzman, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz curiously claimed there were chances for compromise in the Atlantic Yards design and asserted that a basketball arena would be a corporate magnet.

A significant segment of the interview concerned Markowitz's frustration with the mayoral administration's apparent effort to squeeze his office and those of other borough presidents.

Markowitz made a reasonable argument that the borough presidency exists to advocate for the borough in a way that other elected officials cannot, and that more local knowledge and contacts makes government more accessible. The argument for a redefined and clarified role for the BPs deserves discussion.

(He wasn't asked how he uses governmental funds, as in the Brooklyn!! promotional publication, to further his re-election, but that's another story.)

The effect of budget cuts, Markowitz contended, was to rely more on private donations, which led Kuntzman to press him on his relationship with developer Forest City Ratner.

Markowitz's statement that "I don't see the slightest conflict" is questionable, however, because his role as Atlantic Yards cheerleader-in-general can interfere with the borough president's obligation to represent the public, including challenges to the developer on broken promises or environmental impacts.

Defending the borough presidency

I've augmented slightly the transcript published by the Brooklyn Paper with additional quotes gleaned from the podcast.

GK: You’re involved in a lot of things. So why is the New York Post calling for the borough presidents to be abolished?

MM: The Post told me that they think borough presidents are redundant. That was their term. So I went up to the Post a few weeks ago. I asked to go up there to explain why I feel that borough presidents are in a superb position to advocate for the borough and where we add to the responsiveness of city government. And that the meager dollars that are put into these offices in terms of services is probably one of the best bargains in any aspect of city or state government. I don’t know if I persuaded them, I doubt it, but at least they were courteous enough to hear me out, challenge me at times.

I think they’re dead wrong. They’ve had this opinion about getting rid of borough presidents for many years, especially since the charter was revised. I’d be the first to say that, under the city charter today, borough presidents, a lot of their substantive powers were removed, for sure. And there is no doubt that we can be a punching bag for an editorial board of a newspaper or for a mayor who frankly looks at borough presidents as an unwanted dependent.

GK: Are you talking about this mayor?

MM: Whether it is this mayor or previous mayors. I happen to respect Michael Bloomberg an awful lot, and, having said that, budgets that we get allocated don’t show that respect. That’s the best way to put it.

GK: He just cut your discretionary budget tremendously.

MM: There’s no question about it. That plus operating budget and staff. We’ve had quite a few layoffs here. He may say there’s no layoffs, but there are, maybe not from his essential staff, but from ours.

Borough presidencies under fire

GK: How many?

MM: We’ve already lost eight to 10 people. And if budget cuts go through, as possible proposed, it would be another eight to 10. You can die by a thousand cuts rather than seek a charter revision to eliminate borough presidents. The way to do it is just gut them. Give them no money so they can’t do anything. And the less they do, the greater justification you have to eliminate them. It’s very simple. It’s a beautifully conceived plan. I’m not saying that’s their plan, but who knows?

I suspect that there is an objective, perhaps by this mayor, to eliminate the borough presidency. If not eliminate it by charter, than to totally minimize it by gutting it. Now, whether we disagree or agree, Gersh, I work as hard as I am capable of doing. Every day of my life and every night. I could never see myself sitting here not doing anything. And there is only so much private money that I can raise to get things done. And when I raise private money, I get slapped by New York Post, the Daily News, or you. But the truth of the matter is that, without that private money, basically for what [the city] gives us to spend, there is no money here.

Private money for the Book Festival

GK: I was going to segue into that —

MM: And no matter what you want to do, it costs money! The Book Fair, which I think is a great addition to life in Brooklyn, and not only that, the 25,000 people that attended would agree, and the authors, and the publishers love it… costs money. It’s not free. We have to pay for everything. Where does that money come from? So it forces us to have to get on the phones to raise the money to pay for it. We have no choice, because we’re not being given adequate funds to do things on behalf of Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Book Festival is terrific; the question is where to draw the lines between government and business.

Doing business with donors

GK: That’s understandable, but the question that my paper raised, and I know the Post raised, is that the corporations that you’re doing business with for this fundraising are corporations that the borough and the city does business with. I know you say it’s unavoidable... Forest City Ratner is a company that you are associated with.

Not just newspapers have raised the issue; so have good government groups like the Citizens Union.

MM: Why would General Electric get...? Obviously, the people that are going to provide whatever level of resources are those that will benefit if it benefits Brooklynites. And they see that it benefits them. National Grid is a big contributor because they see that a flourishing Brooklyn is good for them. Forest City Ratner--

GK: But if National Grid wanted to build a power plant in Brooklyn, you would be unable to take a position because you’ve been taking their money. That’s the situation you’re in with Forest City.

MM: Not at all. My position on Forest City has been from the get-go, I love it. I support it. I’m the one that suggested it, at least in regards to the team and the arena. No doubt about it. So I don’t see the slightest conflict. Forest City Ratner gives money to major art groups around this city and many groups right here in Brooklyn! So, the concerts as an example, are a tax-exempt 501(c)3. I’m not an officer... yes, I host it, for sure, I do not make fiscal decisions. I’m not an officer. I think it’s great that he and other corporations support [Markowitz’s] Best of Brooklyn [non-profit]. It’s a positive thing. It has an impact on the quality of life. It allows the office of borough president to be relevant in the lives of Brooklynites.
(Emphasis added)

Potential for conflict

But there is the potential for conflict; for example, as I wrote last week, not even Markowitz's own concerns on traffic and parking have been resolved, at least at last report.

He can't simply be a cheerleader. He criticized the loss of public access to the promised open space on the arena roof three years ago, telling the 10/9/05 Daily News, "I believe there should be some public access to the roof. I will definitely use whatever power I have to make sure that happens." He's been pretty quiet since.

He made a big deal about getting Forest City Ratner to make Building 1 in the Atlantic Yards plan shorter than the Williamsburgh Bank tower, but he did not hold the developer to its initial pledge that it wouldn't block views of the bank's clock.

BP's role in schools and development

MM: And listen, I do not want to do nothing. The whole point of being in this job is to get things done! I want to get things done. I am sure Michael Bloomberg wakes up every day and thinks, “What can I do today to do something for New York.” I wake up every day and say, “What can I do for Brooklyn?” This has been my dream job all these years.

But my good looks will only get me so far. I still need money to get things done. Mayor Bloomberg, if he was not a billionaire, if he had no money to run New York City, I don’t care how brilliant he is, he wouldn’t be able to achieve a damn thing, without resources and staff. That’s true for me, too. I need resources and staff. Now I understand there were cuts, but it seems to me the cuts should be fair and balanced across the board. When you have a little staff, compared to a big agency of 5,000 people. If they have to lose 200... that’s different than going from 73 to 50. And that includes cleaners! So we’re going to fight because the job of borough president is the only one that truly reflects the aspirations of the entire borough. The Council Members, State Senators, Assemblymembers, their primary interest, which they should be, is in their districts and their districts only. A mayor has to have the holistic view of the entire city.

My job, as borough president, it to advocate what happens on this side of the street, what does it mean to that side of the street? What’s the vision of development in this borough? What can I bring into the borough that will add to the whole borough’s life, not just a part. And how do I get the mayor and his people to focus on our problems. That’s why the job of borough president, If anything, rather than eliminate it, the job should be strengthened. They should give us a primary role in education. I don’t mean selecting teachers and principals, but in terms of new school construction, specialty schools, get us involved. They should have borough presidents to be the primary one working with the Economic Development Corporation in bringing jobs to the borough. Give us some substantive work to do as partners in government with the funding and staff that enables us to really flourish. Because we know our turf better than they know it! We live here and we serve it. We know it better.

"Agitated" by mayoral cuts

GK: I’m sensing from your tone that you’re concerned that the mayor is not on board with you on this.

MM: I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that there is no question that the last two years have not been good years in terms of funding borough presidents. And if you look at the projections from the Office of Management and Budget, you can clearly see what they have planned for borough presidents. And that is a significant reduction of all borough presidents even from the reduction of today through 2011. And I have to say, whoa, who did this? The Office of Management and Budget is an agency of the mayor. So someone there had to say, you know what? Do I feel somewhat agitated? I do indeed.

GK: You have a good relationship with the mayor.

MM: I do, but the relationship has to be both ways. There has to be respect both ways. I have enormous respect for the mayor and I expect him to show me respect as well. And respect comes in many different forms. Respect means respect the work that I do and the work of borough presidents. We are partners in government. And you don’t starve us. That’s not the way you treat someone you respect and that’s how I feel. We have a job to do. We could be a very effective advocate for Brooklyn and we have been.

Need for dedicated funds

GK: You say they’re trying to gut your office, but you are running for re-election. Why do that if you think the office can’t be effective?

Markowitz made the reasonable argument that the office of Borough President should be outside the discretionary funding stream.

MM: Because I’m going to do everything I can to fight against those cuts to ensure that borough presidents’ offices are appropriately staffed. Now, everyone has to take a cut. We’ve taken two already. Listen, we need cops, we need firefighters, no question about it. But it is unfair the amount of budget cuts they have dumped on borough presidents. The reason why? We’re e not involved in the budget process. That’s the weakness of this process. If anything, I’d like to see in the charter revision process, the borough presidents need to be involved in the budget-making, by vote. And there [needs to be] a dedicated funding stream, for the borough presidents. Right now we have that for capital monies, by formula. I believe the borough presidents should be funded by formula, not at the whim of the mayor and the city council. If the mayor’s central staff is going to be cut by seven percent. And the agencies. And the city council central staff and individual members are all going to sustain that percentage then, you know what? So too will borough presidents. I suspect that’s not what’s happening.

Charter Revision Commission

GK: You know there’s going to have a Charter Revision Commission. I sense that the top agenda item is not to strengthen borough presidents but to weaken them.

(It likely would weaken Community Boards, as well.)

MM: They’re already doing it. But we will fight against it. It may not affect me. It may be implemented in 2000whatever, when I’m no longer borough president. But that’s OK, because I want to make sure that, whoever succeeds me, doesn’t have to go through what I have to go through... in terms of the constant battle, for the office of the Borough President to be considered an essential part of the delivery of city services. That’s what’s been lacking.

Third term priorities?

GK: So if the trend continues, what will you do in a third term? What would be your priority?

Markowitz avoided the specific question to return to his structural argument.

MM: I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to be in semi-retirement. I’m still young. Well, relatively young. I will continue to advocate as strong as I can to make sure the borough presidents are funded in a way that allows us to serve our residents with relevancy as opposed to redundancy. That’s the issue. And the Post builds a story. Sure, they’re celebrating that we’ll have less funds. And it proves their point that we’re redundant. It fulfills what they think of these offices. But if you gave these offices more resources and staff, we would be able to do incredible things because we’re closer to the constituency. We can make government more responsive. Period. No question about it. I know that from the work we do here. We break through the bureaucracy for them. Get things done for them. That’s the point.

More voices, not fewer

Markowitz made the reasonable argument that a "balanced government" needs more voices.

GK: Don’t the city agencies have borough commissioners? Is that not how the mayor keeps in touch with the boroughs?

MM: That’s true, but the borough commissioners report to the commissioner of that department, who reports to the mayor. But I don’t report to the mayor. I can say things and advocate things that somebody who is a subordinate cannot say. And the people put me here and in order to have a responsible government, you need a balanced government, you need more voices, not less voices. This is not a czar. It’s a mayor elected by the people. And there are five borough presidents and a comptroller and a public advocate who have a right to add their voices in the discourse of the city, and to set priorities. No mayor can be right all the time. Nor is a borough president. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but by getting us involved, and having our input and experience and our knowledge of those that we serve, we add immeasurably to making government relevant.

"We create public discourse"

GK: Couldn’t you do that as, if the offices becomes something that is, the equivalent of a borough public advocate?

MM: It can not be. It minimizes what this job is. We’re not just a public advocate. We create public discourse. We come up with development ideas. We pitch businesses. There’s a multitude of things we do. And we’re independent! We don’t report to the mayor. We have a right to set the course that we see for our borough. … The agencies--they’re very respectful. Especially City Planning. I’m talking purely of funding and staff. We cannot be a true partner in government with this mayor or any mayor unless we have the funding and the staff that is necessary to superbly serve the people of Brooklyn.

"Many different hats"

Markowitz struggled a bit to describe the eclectic nature of the job--one that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, for example, has defined a bit differently, with less emphasis on tourism (he doesn't need to), less on cheerleading, and more on land use.

GK: I’m trying to understand, if you lose a couple of staffers, what is the thing you can’t do?

MM: We can’t do anything. We need development staff. If we don’t have planners, we can’t plan. We can’t offer development ideas if we have nobody here who has the expertise in development. If I lose people, even someone who writes a speech for me or help me write, my role in terms of the public will be severely hurt because then I don’t have messages to share, to inspire, to encourage. When you’re an elected official, you have a lot of different purposes. Y’know, some of it is symbolic as well. It’s encourgement. It’s making people feel better, about themsevles, about their borough, about their city. So we hold many different roles in terms of leadership.

A good example, some of the things that we’ve done: all this new construction of affordable housing on our watch, monies that we have provided, that’s not advocacy, that’s reality, with money from our capital budget. Like Habitat for Humanity... And so many other parts of Brooklyn that we’ve been able to help, in terms of direct allocation, because we’re on the ground, we understand, we know the players, and we’re able to see if you put more affordable housing here and here and here, you’ll be able to put a retail component.

Borough president is not a mini-mayor, it’s not. There’s only one mayor of the city of New York. But a Borough President is sort of like, in some ways, many different hats: advocating for the borough, planning for the borough, spending money on behalf of the borough, having events for the borough, promoting Brooklyn as tourism, which I do very, very aggresively. And our numbers have gone up strongly, and I’m thrilled about it. Getting our stories all over the world in publications... U.S. Airlines is doing a big feature on Brooklyn. That’s pitching. That’s working to get to these people. Pitching out to businesses that I try to bring to Brooklyn. That Trader Joe’s, I worked my tush off for years on that... All I’m trying to say is that there’s an essential job of a borough president that’s far more than just an advocate. A public advocate--that job--that position is supposed to be the balance between the mayor and his policies. That’s citywide. I don’t presume to be citywide. My beat’s Brooklyn. That’s my beat.