Permanent government a perpetual threat to de Blasio’s agenda
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda on behalf of our most vulnerable and underserved populations is facing a serious threat during the countdown to the 2017 citywide primary election: the permanent government.
The permanent government is made up of the career managers and workers at state and city agencies who remain in their jobs no matter who is elected governor or mayor or who is appointed to lead these agencies.
Thanks to de Blasio’s efforts, the minimum wage has been raised, universal prekindergarten has been expanded and mental health services are growing across the state. After fewer than three years as New York City’s mayor, he has already established a sustainable progressive legacy.
But in recent weeks, some of the mayor’s best and brightest appointments have been inadvertently stained by the normally under-the-radar activities of the permanent government.
The best example is in the asset management division at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which removed a deed restriction on a nursing home on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to facilitate the building’s sale to a developer.
First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, who may be the smartest and most respected man in city government, caught the spillback from that deal cut by the permanent government employees in that agency. But Shorris immediately did the right thing as soon as he learned about it: he sent it to the Department of Investigation.
The Department of Investigation is likely to be busy with the Department of Citywide Administrative Service for some time: I know of at least one other real estate transaction that is strikingly similar to the Rivington deal. And where there are two questionable deals, there are likely to be more.
The challenge for any elected official and their appointees, no matter how virtuous their agenda, is that these agencies are the home of permanent employees and we are simply visitors passing through.
When I was named as head the public affairs division at the state Office of Children and Family Services by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, I was dumbfounded when career employees, from low-level secretaries to associate commissioners, would respond with, “we’ll just go back to doing things the way we always did when all of you leave” as we worked to change policies and programs that were simply ineffective.
We heard it from an associate commissioner when we worked to transform the state’s juvenile justice system, where agency employees had abused children for decades.
I heard it from an employee in the child welfare division who had asked me to sign off on the contracts that they were awarding for child abuse prevention programs. When I refused because Brooklyn, the most populous county in the state, was not getting a contract, she explained that they allocated the contracts based on how well they were written.
“That’s the way it’s always been,” she told me.
I brought my concerns to the commissioner and told her what was going on. She picked up the telephone and changed the policy for the next round of contracts to make “economic need” the basis for allocating contracts as opposed to who had the best grant writers.
Naturally, after that incident, someone in the child welfare division removed the director of communications from the list of required approvals for contracts.
Every time I picked up a rock and found worms, the permanent government was always there to cover it up. From the graphic designer who never passed the civil service exam and spent nearly a quarter of million dollars without approval, to the “meeting meat” who always sat in the back row, collecting an $80,000 annual salary but had no responsibilities whatsoever. The permanent government protected their jobs until they were eligible for full retirement.
The last straw for my tenure at the Office of Children and Family Services was another instance of blatant obstruction. The permanent government blocked me from giving ABC News 20/20 Reporter Christopher Cuomo a story about an agency employee who tied a child in a chair, then sat on the boy’s lap while he punched him repeatedly in the face, even though I got sign-off from the director of the state Committee on Open Government. By then, I figured I had done as much as I could to support the transformation of juvenile justice, child welfare and childcare. I took a job with the city and moved back to Brooklyn.
I developed a reputation as a troublemaker when I looked under those rocks. It took me awhile to learn from my much wiser and seasoned boss that if we are going to transform critical systems to improve outcomes for children, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. It’s far too easy to stumble and lose focus.
There is a way that de Blasio can counter the machinations of the permanent government and clean up any potential landmines that could deter his re-election in 2017. The mayor can take the advice of another New Yorker, the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”
With the stroke of a pen, Mayor de Blasio can order city agencies to adhere to the city charter chapter requiring agencies provide public access to information upon demand.
The threat from the permanent government would disappear, and overnight, de Blasio would become a local and national media favorite, and other elected officials would be compelled to follow his lead.
Eddie Borges is directing a documentary about Mexican and Puerto Rican childhood poverty in New York City.