Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is continuing to issue some 3500 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 say “this vehicle is on official police business,” even though they are frequently carried by officials with no law enforcement responsibilities.
The practice is not new – it’s so accepted that 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, according to Queens State Senator Tony Avella, who cut up his placard and then issued a press release about it, “it’s the kind of business-as-usual we promised to reform.”
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Governor Andrew Cuomo was swept in last November -- a Democrat winning in a pro-Republican year around the country -- on a platform of bringing a new era of ethical responsibility to Albany, a notoriously dysfunctional state government. To the relief of many New Yorkers, he said he would "end business as usual."
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.” Avella also said “I’m not on official police business, nor is any politician who gets one of these on official police business.”
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, Governor Cuomo’s spokesperson, Joshua Vlasto, did not explain why the placards refer to “official police business,” even though that is not the case.
Some years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg faced 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 because 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 is an inducement to drive to work at a time when Mayor Bloomberg is encouraging people to drive less and take mass transit more. Other mayors around the country have also been eliminating employee parking privileges for that reason, notably former Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, who took away the right of city employees to park free at meters.
When asked if Governor Cuomo would look at changing practices involving the state permits, Vlasto said in an email, “we are reviewing the matter.”
Right now, some 6000 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 3500 go to New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. Those placards say “State of New York Executive Branch.” A spokesman for that Division, Dennis Michalski, could not immediately say on Friday how the recipients of those 3500 placards are chosen.
In addition, Bookstaver said, some 2500 placards are distributed to the New York State Judiciary – and some of those – about a hundred, 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.
Senator Avella was 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 Republican Senate Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, whose party regained power after two years on the outs, 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 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. TA’s Noah Budnick said “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.”
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