Friday, February 17, 2006

"Groundbreaking" Integrity in Government Measure

Once again the mayor has used the term "groundbreaking" to describe one of his policy initiatives. The first time that we recall the term being used was when he was describing the recycling effort that was a supposed key variable in the proposed SWMP. At the time we commented that the proposal was only groundbreaking if the mayor was digging with a plastic spoon.

Now we come to the joint policy proposal on government integrity that the mayor and Council Speaker Chris Quinn announced yesterday. Our only response is: Break out the entire set of plastic utensils! It calls to mind Machiavelli's observation that, "It is better to appear good than to actually be good."

First of all the proposal is not in reaction to any particular scandal. So there is no indication that, in forwarding this initiative, there will be any improvement in governmental integrity. It would have been nice if there had been a set of hearings preceding the policy formulation. Rather what we are given here is an a priori set of assumptions that, quite frankly, fail to address "the sway of special and moneyed interests..."

In fact the chutzpah of this proposed reform is mind-blowing. We have just recently seen the approval of a project that, at the end of a 99 year lease, will be worth $4 billion to a certain developer. Yet, the lease in question was never even put out to bid and it was disclosed that the CEO of the real estate company was a close friend of the deputy mayor. Yet somehow this kind of "special favor" goes unmentioned at yesterday's press conference.

In addition, the company in question lavished tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, money that, in at least one case, got an elected official to completely reverse a public position. Yet nowhere in the reforms proposed yesterday do we see this kind of special interest influence addressed. Therefore the concentration on lobbyists, while certainly appropriate, leaves a huge policy gap in place for those concerned with governmental integrity. As the Alliance's Richard Lipsky says in today's NY Daily News, "It's the kind of loophole you can drive a whole fleet of trucks through."

If the mayor and speaker are really interested in reform they can start by capping the money that a company like Related can give to elected officials. Make the cap similar to the one proposed for lobbyists but give it even more strength by putting a limit on the total amount the company, and all of those who feed on its largesse (lawyers, insurance brokers, land use consultants, et al), can contribute to elected officials.

While the council is at it they should look to greatly strengthen the power and independence of the city's Conflict of Interest Board. As we have pointed out during commentary on the Doctoroff-Steve Ross love fest at the Bronx Terminal Market, the COIB needs a major overhaul. The Board should be completely independent of the mayor and the council and, in addition, should be invested with investigative and prosecutorial powers.

So, we're glad that NYC is looking to clean up its act, even though the evidence of its dirtiness is yet to be proffered. If the Council is really interested reform, however, it needs to figure out a more comprehensive package that targets the most special of interests in this town: real estate.

Today's NY Sun piece by Jill Gardiner picks up Lipsky's comments in this regard:
"I don't necessarily think that lobbyists are being unfairly targeted, what I'm saying is that by only targeting lobbyists it [the proposal] overlooks the essence of special interest politics and conflict of interest politics in this city, which is the power of the real estate companies"...Mr. Lipsky said if the mayor wants more 'integrity' in government, he should stop awarding developers with connections to key members of his administration plum projects.
If this isn't done than the putative reform package will underscore Murray Edelman's observation about the gap between the symbolic and the tangible in government policy making. Its passage will act as symbolic assurance that action has been taken, lulling a gullible public into what Edelman calls "quiescence", while leaving in place the system of tangible rewards for those special interests with the greatest power.