Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Need for Balance

In today's NY Daily News the paper's Michael Goodwin writes a prescient column on the importance of the governmental system of checks and balances; and admits that his affection for strongmen in politics might not always make for good government. Goodwin focuses in on the actions of President Bush, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Spitzer to make the larger point.

The Bloomberg focus deals with the bus fiasco that was on the agenda at a city council hearing yesterday. As you might remember, when first confronted by the disaster of giving five year-olds Metro Cards, the mayor arrogantly blasted critics who "had never managed anything in their lives," and in the process managed to stick a big foot into his own mouth.

The point here is that, similar to Aristotle's criticism of Socrates' philosopher king concept, it is clear that, while most folks will leave the shoe making to the shoemaker, they are quite capable of telling a craftsman that the shoe pinches. Which brings us ti the whole issue of checks and balances.

No matter how good a manger any one particular mayor might be, it is essential that she or he be subject to rigorous evaluation. In our city political system there are too forces that should be brought to bear: the city council and the local media. In both instances, however, the appropriate checks have been missing.

For way too long the local press has been overly solicitous of the mayor, and our editorial boards have gone as far as to try to lionize him. His wealth and consequent "above politics" stature has given him greater immunity from serious criticism than some less wealthy executive might have received. It appears to have gone to his head and only underscores our point on this subject that being above the normal political process also means that there is less accountability. In addition, the fact that one is not beholden to the dreaded "special interests" is never a guarantor of statesmanship and political acumen.

Which brings us to the City Council and its role as a mayoral check. Observers have pointed out that Speaker Quinn has been unusually friendly with the mayor (pointedly departing from the mode of her adversarial predecessor) and apparently loath to criticize him, even on some very questionable policy initiatives. Her recent criticism of Bloomberg on the bus fiasco is a positive sign indeed. More is needed, however.

It was a mistake for the council to allow the DOH to promulgate the trans fat and menu labeling rules with no legislative precursor. It is, however, not too late for the legislature to review the menu labelling rule and amend it so that it is not too restrictive. It is time, therefore, for the speaker to strip the mantle of papal infallibility from the mayor and act as a check on the mayor's imperial tendencies.

Clearly, if the school bus mess is any indication than it should be clear to the lawmakers that this just might be the tip of the school iceberg. Remember, the chancellor fiasco with the deputy for instruction, someone named Farina we believe? Remember when the DOE hired all of those wet -behind-the-ears management types to treat the system just like any other business? The mayor staked his political reputation on school reform; it's time that the entire enterprise was examined with a critical eye.