Third Term Strikes Again

It is looking as though the public had it right all along. Two terms and out makes good sense for New York City mayors. A year into his third term and Mike Bloomberg has been infected with the disease known as third-termism. It is a political ailment that gets the best of them, from Fiorello LaGuardia to Ed Koch. They stay in City Hall too long and suffer the consequences in the form of trouble, trouble, trouble.

Now it is Mayor Bloomberg’s turn. Though fully aware that failing to clear the city streets of snow can hobble a mayor (John V. Lindsay never lived down his 1969 snowstorm debacle), Bloomberg failed to get the city moving after last week’s blizzard. If he had declared a snow emergency in the early hours of last week’s blizzard, snow clearance would have been more effective, but the mayor — or someone in his government — waited too long.

The mayor steadfastly refuses to say who was running the city in the early hours of the storm. But whoever it was did not realize the force of the blizzard in time to get out ahead of it. Suspicions of a slowdown by sanitation workers angered by budget cuts may have complicated matters. A federal prosecutor, as well as the City Council and the district attorneys of Queens and Brooklyn, are investigating. The mayor himself, who originally said, in one of his familiar tone-deaf moments, that the city was fine — “Broadway shows were full last night. There are lots of tourists here enjoying themselves” — later realized he was off base, called the city’s response “unacceptable’’ and is clearly unhappy. He demoted one official, the chief of Emergency Medical Services, and is making a public show of being in control, especially with another snowstorm looming.

As if the snow mess was not enough, garbage piled up because of the blizzard, and on a parallel course, a scandal involving CityTime, an automated system meant to streamline employee timekeeping, is growing. The Bloomberg-blessed project has ballooned to over $700 million, ten times its original budget, it is six months past its due date, and consultants hired to oversee implementation of the project have been paid nearly $50 million — $46 million more than they were supposed to receive.

Federal prosecutors charged several subcontractors with an $80 million fraud scheme to channel expensive city contracts to businesses they controlled. Federal authorities, in concert with the city’s Department of Investigation, continue their probe.

The mayor has called the project that began in 1998 “a disaster,” and last month dismissed the administration official in charge of the project.

Public awareness of the problems with CityTime grew at about the same time that many New Yorkers registered their unhappiness over the mayor’s choice of former publishing executive Cathie Black as the new schools chancellor. That created such a dust-up that the mayor had to accept an awkward compromise to get her the state waiver she needed to take the job — the appointment of a deputy chancellor to really run things. Even a signature achievement of Bloomberg’s leadership — the continuing reduction in crime — has hit a wall. The overall crime rate is still down, but serious crimes, led by murder and rape, are on the rise, and the Police Department has brought in a team of former prosecutors to make sure it's keeping accurate statistics.                                            

All this on the watch of the presumed paragon of management skills, independent technocrat Michael Bloomberg. Bad luck, acts of God, the impact of the recession? Sure. But those are always factors for mayors of New York. Students of city government would add Third Termism. Long-serving mayors get tired, even bored. They can become inattentive, distracted. Their staffs often lose their edge. The job gets too familiar and less challenging, the dishonest — and there are always some in and around government who are dishonest — take risks, the public gets increasingly intolerant of the traits that most annoy them about their mayor.

No mayor who served three terms has escaped. After twelve years in office, LaGuardia retired embittered. He wanted to be a World War II general but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not appoint him. LaGuardia left City Hall frustrated and left the city with a mountain of debt. Robert F. Wagner ended his third term tired and out of steam. Ed Koch’s third term was overwhelmed by a corruption scandal that, though it did not involve him directly, tainted his reputation and obscured some of his finest achievements.

Third termism is the main reason that Mayor Bloomberg’s closest, most trusted advisers warned him against changing the term limits law. They had seen its impact before and worried about his reputation, so strong through his first two terms that he could have left office on a high, his strong image intact.

Bloomberg can still recover. But it will never be the same. CityTime, Cathie Black, rising rates of serious crime, and the botched blizzard-clearance saw to that. Supporters of the independent business whiz and — despite his denials — the mayor himself, dreamed that his reputation for independence and seamless management, for presiding over a government free of serious scandal during his first two terms, could even propel him into the White House some day.

That talk has been silenced for now, buried under mounds of snow.

Joyce Purnick, author of "Mike Bloomberg, Money, Power, Politics," was an editor, reporter and columnist at The New York Times for 29 years and the long-time author of the award-winning “Metro Matters” column. A native New Yorker educated in its public schools, Ms. Purnick has, so far, covered six mayors of New York.