Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is continuing to issue thousand of parking placards to state legislators and state government employees. Those placards permit the bearer to park in most areas in New York City where others could not. Many of the permits read "This vehicle is on official police business," even though they are frequently carried by officials with no law enforcement responsibilities.
Spokespeople for the governor, assembly speaker and senate majority leader could not immediately say how the placards are distributed, who gets them, or why. But Queens State Senator Tony Avella — who cut up his placard and then issued a press release about it — said "it's the kind of business-as-usual we promised to reform."
Avella said he would not use his placard because, as a state senator, he should experience New York the way his constituents do "and that includes looking for parking."
"I'm not on official police business, nor is any politician who gets one of these 'on official police business,'" Avella said
Other elected officials have said in the past that having the placards enables them to attend several community events in a day, and that driving around looking for parking would mean they couldn't serve their constituents as effectively.
Despite repeated inquiries over the course of a week, Cuomo’s spokesperson, Joshua Vlasto, did not explain why the placards refer to "official police business," even if it is not the case.
Several years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was caught up in a controversy when it was revealed that there were some 140,000 placards in use by city employees. Those placards also used to refer to "official police business." But the mayor promised to reduce city placards by half, and changed the language for non-law enforcement officers to "this vehicle is on official city business."
The placards were a potential embarrassment -- nothing irks a New York City resident more than the whiff of a city official getting a privilege he or she does not. But also, making it easier for city employees to park could be an inducement to drive to work at a time when Bloomberg is encouraging everyone to drive less and take mass transit more.
Other mayors around the country have also bee eliminating employee parking privileges, most notably former Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, who took away the right of city employees to park free at meters.
When asked if Cuomo would look at changing practices involving the state permits, Vlasto said in an email, "We are reviewing the matter."
Right now, some 6,000 placards are distributed by the state, according to the David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, which oversees the production of the placards. Some 3,500 go to New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. Those placards read "State of New York Executive Branch."
A spokesman for that Division, Dennis Michalski, could not immediately say on Friday how the recipients of those 3,500 placards are chosen.
In addition, Bookstaver said, some 2,500 placards are distributed to the New York State Judiciary, and some of those – about 100 — go to the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Waterfront Commission. Those entities do have law enforcement responsibilities.
Avella was also unsure how he was chosen to receive one. He said his placard was delivered to his Albany office, and that his understanding was that all state senators received them.
A spokesman for the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Scott Rief, said placards had been distributed previously by majority leaders as a perk, but he said that practice had ended. The governor's office also did not offer clarification on how the placards are distributed.
The pro-transit advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, has been working for many years to shine on light on the practice, which it says encourages the use of personal vehicles over other forms of transportation, a practice they say is environmentally harmful.
"This is one of those things that recipients don't question, because things have always been done this way. But widespread distribution of placards for people who don’t need them has got to stop," TA's Noah Budnick said.