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Breakfast with Marty: jousting about budget issues and adding urban planners to community boards

A baker's dozen of bloggers--a few full-time, most part-time, a few trained in journalism, most not--were invited yesterday morning to breakfast at Borough Hall with three aides to Borough President Marty Markowitz, then with the BP himself.

While there was a 20-minute opportunity for on-the-record questions--read below for my back-and-forth with Markowitz about land use issues and the budget--the first two-thirds of the meeting was off-the-record. So the meeting served as a chance for the hosts to learn more about what we do, to learn how to open up lines of communication and to help hone strategy.

Even though Markowitz doesn't yet have a challenger in his re-election run, Brooklyn is a big place and online news sources become ever more important to monitor, connect with, and manage.

(Here's the audio file of the on-the-record session.)

Those attending

Those attending: Brownstoner's Jonathan Butler; Flatbush Gardener's Chris Kreussling; Ditmas Park Blog's Liena Zagare; Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn's Louise Crawford; Brooklyn Heights Blog (four people); GerritsenBeach.net's Dan Cavanagh; Pardon Me for Asking's Katia Kelly; Noticing New York's Michael D.D. White; and The Local's Andy Newman.

(I'm not sure how many invites were sent, but I know some bloggers who were invited couldn't make it.)

It was impossible not to notice that, in a borough as diverse as Brooklyn, the group--except for a fourth Markowitz aide who came later--was all white. On the other hand, while most in the group don't consider themselves professional journalists, they probably produce more useful content about Brooklyn than, at least, the handful of daily newspaper reporters assigned to Brooklyn.

Here's friendly, brief coverage of the event from Ditmas Park Blog, Pardon Me for Asking, and Brooklyn Heights Blog (source of the photo below), and some more skepticism from GerritsenBeach.net (source of the top photo). Here's OTBKB with a bit more on the subtext.

The Markowitz effect

Markowitz was in full effect, alternately restrained and animated, thoughtful and combative.

Facing the first question, on the controversy over developing the site of the legendary Lundy's Restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Markowitz talked soberly and fluently about the zoning issues.

Then, even though his aides wanted the Borough President to move on to a new question, Markowitz shifted into his more comfortable raconteur mode: "You should know this. It's only a half of what it used to be," he said. "There was no such thing--believe it or not in Brooklyn, there were no maitre d's. Lundy's had no maitre d's, it sat over 2000, 3000 diners. Every single waiter was African-American. White waiters did not exist at all. Old Man Lundy would only hire African-American waiters. And when you came inside the restaurant, you'd have to wait behind a table, run around the whole restaurant, see who was eating desserts and stand behind them... give the waiter a five-buck tip, or a dollar or two dollars in those days, and he'd wipe off the table quickly to get them out and get you in. Those days are long gone."

Urban planners on community boards

I got the second question: "I posed this publicly. City Hall News reported that Scott Stringer wants to extend this plan in which urban planning grad students are interns at community boards, cost five grand a person. It said the other Borough presidents, including you, were kinda noncommital. Anything more?"

"Y'know, we have a planning department right here at Brooklyn Borough Hall," Markowitz responded straightforwardly. "And every single Community Board has the right, and we encourage them to use our services. Some do, very aggressively, and others don't."

Stringer's initiative, part of his distinctive stress on land use issues, stems from the recognition that a BP's office can't serve all the community boards. (Update: Markowitz's department has only three people.) Not to mention that the community boards and the borough president might be at odds over some land-use issues; Atlantic Yards prompted Markowitz to purge some long-serving Community Board 6 members.

"I think the idea of having urban interns, I think is a fabulous idea," he continued. "The problem comes, in the paying of $5000 each or whatever it may be, it doesn't sound like a lot of money, but if you take a look at the budgets of Brooklyn Borough Hall since I've begun, even before I've begun, but certainly since I've begun, the amount of monies they provide us for staff has each year gone down and down and down. We've had layoffs here. And I don't know what's looming ahead, I don't know."

He shifted tone a bit: "But we love the idea. If we can do it, I'd love to do it."

Sure, Markowitz's budget has shrunk, but spending constitutes a set of trade-offs. How much money is spent on the promotional Brooklyn!! publication, which both contains some useful information and serves to remind everybody that the BP is "on the block"? (In some nifty synergy, it also provides revenue to the Courier-Life chain.)

The New York Post, in its crusade against the borough presidents, pointed out that Markowitz has three drivers, a speechwriter, and a proclamations writer. I'm not sure if all those positions remain, but a clear-eyed look at the BP's budget might help citizens judge how he deploys his limited resources.

About the budget

That prompted my next question in the exchange. "Is the budget online," I asked, in a neutral tone.

"I don't know," he responded with brio. "The city probably has our budget online, I'm sure. It's public, it's not private. It's your tax dollars."

Having public information and having it online are two different things, chimed in Kreussling.

"It's not on the Brooklyn-USA site, at least not that I can find," I pointed out.

"That wouldn't be on our site," Markowitz pointed out with a touch of incredulity.

"Your budget wouldn't be on your site?" I parried.

"Not on Brooklyn-USA, I don't think so," he said. "That's really a web site that we use for a lot of different purposes, promoting our programs here, as well as tourism issues and efforts, hearings we'll put on there... ULURP hearings."

"Where else should it be?" I followed up.

(To be fair, the Manhattan Borough President's budget isn't on the official web site either. though the web site is far more devoted to policy than Brooklyn-USA.org.)

"I think the appropriate place is certainly the Department of Finance, the comptroller's office, those are all budgets--every single office is all public," he responded. "Go see it, Norman, you're a good guy."

"You can link to it, make it easy for us," I responded.

"If you go to the office of Payroll Administration, they can give you everything," said his chief of staff, Carlo Scissura.

"There's no secrets, everything is right there for you to look," Markowitz concluded.

(Later, his staff pointed me to the city budget office, which shows that the agency budget has indeed gone down dramatically. However, they could not point me to a line-item budget. I was told that, for FY 09, the budget is $4,729,484 for personnel and $914,826 for other spending, including $302,000 in discretionary funds. Also, the BP's office, was initially allocated $88.7 million dollars in capital funding, but after cuts, the estimate is $70.96 million. It sure would be good to learn exactly where that's spent. Another web site, produced by the Empire Center for New York State Policy, offers a list of all staffers and their salaries, though it may not be fully up-to-date.)

[Update 12:46 pm: An official at another city agency pointed me to the mayor's budget office, and PDF pages 165-174 of this document.]

Further questions and a soliloquy

Other questions concerned the BP's position on the Gowanus issue, the funding of Markowitz's charities by Bloomberg L.P. (White's focus; he was told they'd get back to him), and the further digitization of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The latter inquiry inspired a soliloquy. "There are so many programs we'd like to do," Markowitz said, revving up, and turning to me, even though it wasn't my question. "Once you discover, Norman, what budget we get here, I want you to make one promise to me.... I want you to compare my budget compared to any city in America that has 2.56 million people. Just compare it."

"I'm sure it's less," I said.

"I want you to compare any entity in America--I've got a better idea." He started pounding the table for emphasis. "Any city with 500,000, 400,000 300,000, 200,000... I want you to compare their budget with what we get here. It's a miracle what we do here."

Of course it's less. But Brooklyn isn't a city; it has no police force or school system. In fact, even nominally Brooklyn institutions like the Brooklyn Public Library are mostly funded by the city.

So the question concerns how Markowitz balances well-regarded promotional activities, like Dine in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Book Festival (both also funded through his questionable charities), with the office's more sober responsibilities, notably land use. Moreover, given the general neglect of Brooklyn by the dailies, the ratio of Markowitz press people to daily newspaper reporters covering the "city" is probably higher than in most smaller cities.

(In case you're wondering, I figured I'd get only one question, so I chose not to bring up Atlantic Yards, since I didn't think it would produce any useful dialogue.)

The role of the BP

Late in the segment, Markowitz was reminded how he dressed up for a Brooklyn Bridge celebration and was asked, "If the world allowed it, would you wear a top hat and tails every day?"

Markowitz recalled that he'd just worn a circus ringmaster's outfit for a photo op. (Photo of Markowitz with Mayor Mike Bloomberg from NYC Visit via Gothamist)

He got into a groove: "In the borough presidency as I see it, I'm not a straightlaced politician, I'm really not. You may not know me well, but I'm really fun-loving and I'm generally, 99 percent happy. I really am. "

(Others find him a bit more moody.)

"And I think I somehow extend that," he continued. "You may know me a little bit, but way before I became borough president, but a large part of this borough knew me for 23 years, and before that, as a tenant organizer, for seven years before that. So when I ran for the Borough Presidency, people in Brooklyn--many--knew me already. And that's why, although I get bashed, in newspapers, obviously, whatever, they know me. They know me. They know exactly where I've come from. They know exactly who I am.

("They know me" is a bit of a mantra when Markowitz feels aggrieved.)

"And so therefore when I put on the top hat, it's all about promoting Brooklyn. It's all my fun side. I just try to balance out between the serious and the lighthearted, between policy and things that I think will put a smile on the faces of folks. I try my best to communicate to them. I really do," he continued evenly.

The term limits issue

"I love this job and I certainly thank Michael Bloomberg for fighting for extension of term limits," the BP continued. "He didn't mean me... but I'm thankful he and the council voted for it. I've always been against term limits, by the way, I just think it's anti-democratic, in my humble opinion. The voters have the right--look what happened... with my colleague, Senator Marty Connor--the voters always have the right to remove their elected officials, and that's called elections."

He got on his soapbox, finally sounding agitated: "Put on artificial term limits, and take away the right of the people to choose, because you're talking away the right of the electorate to choose, you're forcing people out of office, when they can contribute to the well-being of the city."

(It's true that Connor was beaten by the spirited and savvy challenger Dan Squadron, but beating an incumbent isn't easy. From a City Council member quoted by City Limits, via Brooklyn Ron: "You can do anything you want and you will be re-elected. You can fuck this up and you will be re-elected. You can do an excellent job and you will be reelected.")

He calmed down.

"But whatever the case might be, I'm thrilled I have a chance, as I said the other day on NY 1, I'm excited about serving, I hope, my next term... And I'm thankful to you and those you serve, and those who support me, and those who have other feelings. Nonetheless, it's all part of the mix of being an elected official."

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