The money spent on the office of the public advocate could be better spent elsewhere — “for schools, senior centers, child care,” for instance. That’s the rationale provided by the office of City Councilmember Simcha Felder, whose spokesperson, Eric Kuo, told this paper that Felder has “long supported eliminating the office of public advocate” and is now “exploring ways to do this legislatively.” While Kuo declined to confirm that Felder was either “drafting or requesting legislation,” news of the councilmember’s planned legislation was first aired last Thursday on the website, cityhallnews.com.
Why eliminate the position, which serves as an ombudsman for city residents and a watchdog over City Halli “Ninety nine percent of New Yorkers don’t know what the public advocate does or who the public advocate is,” Kuo responded. The office’s responsibilities, including oversight over other officials, could be taken over by other offices, Kuo contended.
The public advocate’s office has been under frontal assault lately. The fiscal year 2010 budget, adopted last month by the City Council, cut funding for the office by a whopping 40 percent.
The proposal is “unworthy of a comment,” noted Anne Strahle, campaign manager for former Public Advocate Mark Green, who is running for the office again this year.
A spokesperson for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum had more to say. “It seems that Simcha Felder has resumed his role as cooing pet pigeon to the mayor and speaker, just like with term limits,” said Sarah Krauss of Gotbaum’s office when asked for a comment. “Whatever his motive, one thing is clear, this is one councilmember who is impossible to take seriously.
“While Simcha Felder was busy serving his constituency with a bird-brained idea to starve pigeons,” Krauss went on, “Betsy Gotbaum was successfully fighting to improve the way the city treats its most vulnerable citizens: Kids who have been victims of abuse and neglect, kids in the child welfare system and kids in special education, as well as improving access to needed services. In a city with such a powerful mayor, we need a system of checks and balances. There must be one office charged with holding the administration accountable. The office of the public advocate exists to ensure the government of this city is providing New Yorkers with all services to which they’re entitled.”
Public interest attorney Norman Siegel, a candidate for public advocate, said, “I believe Simcha Felder’s proposed bill is the wrong approach. I strongly oppose abolishing the public advocate’s office. It can be and should be an important office for all New Yorkers, to protect their rights, and hold government accountable. We need a long overdue dialogue to debate the role of the public advocate’s office.”
City Councilmember Bill de Blasio, who is also running for public advocate, also dismissed the idea. “Our city faces great challenges: A mayor who thinks he can buy out voters’ objections to a third term, an economic crisis with no real plan to revive our neighborhoods, and a public education system that has been implemented in a way which shuts out parents,” de Blasio said.”In the almost 20 years since it was created, the position of public advocate has never been more important and more needed.With a mayor who has unfettered power and little respect for those who disagrees with him, New Yorkers need a strong voice standing up for them in City Hall.”
Any legislation to eliminate the post may be unworkable. Sources point out that the position is mandated by the City Charter, and therefore can’t be eliminated by any legislation that the City Council could cobble together. “By law, they can’t do it,” one insider commented.
Nonetheless, legislation could be “rolled out” as early as mid-summer.
The other candidates for the office, which is being vacated at the end of this year by Gotbaum, who opposed the extension of term limits that would have allowed her to run for a third term, are City Councilmember Eric Gioia, a Democrat, and Staten Island Republican Alex Zablocki.