By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
Before you know it, the 2016 presidential election campaign will be (mercifully) over and then the political focus in New York City will almost immediately shift to the mayoral and other city elections in 2017. Aside from the mayor, there are elections including those for comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents, district attorneys and all 51 members of the City Council. Each will be elected for four year terms of office. At least six of them are unnecessary.
But first a little recent history: Prior to 1989 this city was governed essentially by a body known as the Board of Estimate. It consisted of the three citywide elected officials: the mayor, the president of the City Council, the comptroller and each borough president.
The citywide officials had two votes on the board and each borough president had one vote.
The City Council was virtually powerless since most of the real decision making occurred at the Board of Estimate, including virtually all fiscal matters. After a lawsuit and changes to the New York City Charter much of that changed. The Board of Estimate was abolished and the City Council was empowered to make all legislative decisions. The office of the president of the City Council was also abolished and instead a speaker of the council was created, elected by the other members of the council.
The position of president of the City Council morphed into an office called public advocate. And the power of the five borough presidents was greatly reduced with the demise of the Board of Estimate.
Today, borough presidents are essentially cheerleaders for their boroughs with little powers other than some limited input into the capital portion of the city budget and the authority to appoint members to their local community boards along with the their City Council members.
The office of public advocate has even less responsibility.
But the position of borough president and public advocate will still appear on the ballot in 2017 at an annual cost of over $10 million to the city treasury. It is high time we streamlined government and eliminated duplication and offices that people aspire to merely as a means to run for higher office in the future.
The office of public advocate is a prime example.
With apologies to Letitia James who is a fine person, the office she occupies is irrelevant. If it is a complaint center for discontented citizens to vent their frustrations, that function is redundant and already being fulfilled by an assortment of local public officials.
There is little ability for that office to accomplish much especially given the paltry resources assigned to it. Citizens who have problems are better served by going to their city or state legislator or even member of Congress, all of whom maintain constituent service offices usually within walking distance or a short ride on mass transit.
Similarly borough presidents are a layer of government which is largely duplicative of other elected officials and at worst whose limited powers could easily be assumed by the local City Council members from the borough.
We do have some excellent borough presidents. Gale Brewer from Manhattan is an experienced and effective public official whose tenure on the City Council was a very good one. She was, however, term limited from running for re-election back in 2013 and consequently ran for borough president since she could no longer serve in the City Council.
The “outer boroughs” are similarly represented by fine public servants. However, the office that they hold, as well as the office that evolved into the public advocate, are throwbacks to an earlier age in the last century when they were relevant. Now it has become mostly a springboard to run for mayor or comptroller, where the actual power resides. The current mayor and current comptroller are prime examples of that.
I do not begrudge the occupants of these offices their careers in government. Most of them are very sincere and dedicated persons. However, their considerable talents are wasted in positions with little authority. Worse still, the waste of public resources in maintaining these offices is
not a price that New Yorkers should pay.