Opinion: Public advocate: Use it or lose it

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

After Letitia James is sworn in as the state’s new attorney general, there will be a special election in early 2019 to replace her as New York City’s next, and sixth, public advocate. But is that really necessary?

The position of public advocate, which pays $165,000 a year, was created when court ordered changes were made to New York City government in 1989. The powerful Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional and abolished, transferring much of its responsibilities to the more democratic City Council.

The office of president of the City Council, a citywide elected position, was also eliminated and in its place the office of speaker of the City Council was created with significant new powers. Subsequently the citywide elected position of “public advocate” was created in place of City Council president. But its duties were ill defined and vague. It was given virtually no authority over anything.

At the time it was thought that the Charter Revision Commission created that position to preserve an office for then-City Council President Andrew Stein. Many argued that its functions replicated those of the five borough presidents in terms of civic advocacy. And any oversight functions that the public advocate might assume was also carried out by the city comptroller.

So if Ms. James’ soon-to-be vacated position was not filled immediately, or ever, would anyone even notice?
In reality, that position has been mostly used as a springboard to higher office. Before Ms. James’ tenure as public advocate, Bill de Blasio held that position, and from that perch launched his campaign for mayor. Mark Green also served as public advocate and was a perennial candidate for higher office including mayor, albeit unsuccessfully.

It is hard to point to any tangible accomplishments realized by any of the five persons who have occupied the office of public advocate, other than the occasional reports that are still gathering dust in a file cabinet or hard drive somewhere. So it’s high time to reexamine the usefulness (if any) of this office.

When all is said and done, the public advocate ought to be given real governmental duties with commensurate resources. If its purpose is to be a watchdog on government, it should be given subpoena power to investigate. If its purpose is also to be an ombudsman, then it should be given the wherewithal to help communities with their municipal difficulties. If not, it should be abolished.

New York City already has public campaign financing, which is a taxpayer funded program that benefits election efforts for aspiring politicians. We should not also have a government office with no portfolio or purpose other than to advance political ambitions paid for with our tax dollars.

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