Public Advocate: Do We Need One?

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One of the more high-profile citywide races taking place this summer and fall is the one for the Public Advocate's office. The contest has drawn some of the most well known politicians in town. But even as they make their case to the public, other politicians are slashing the budget of the office, and arguing that it makes more sense to get rid of it altogether. WNYC's Arun Venugopal has more.

Just how obscure is the office of Public Advocate? Of the 15 people we asked to identify the current officeholder, this is about the closest anyone got.

MAN: It starts with an R or something. Or something in her name is an R.

There's actually no R in “Betsy Gotbaum,” but just as no one knew that, no one knew what her office does either.

REPORTER: So why is the race to be the NEXT public advocate drawing such big names? The candidates include Council Members Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, and the only other person to have served as Public Advocate, Mark Green.

The job description of the Public Advocate is to serve as the city's ombudsman, and as a counterweight to the Mayor and Council. Whoever wins would also be the first in line to succeed the Mayor, should that office suddenly open up. The problem is that the Public Advocate isn't truly independent, and recently city hall slashed its budget by 40 percent. That's prompted renewed discussion of whether the office should simply be shut down. One critic is Curtis Sliwa, the popular radio host, who’s thinking of running.

SLIWA: ...first thing I would do is padlock the office, fire all my employees and fire myself.

REPORTER: But there are also serious criticisms of the office, from people who embrace the concept. But first, it's worth understanding why the office was created. That happened in 1989, when a Charter Revision Commission restructured city government. Eric Lane is a professor at Hofstra University who headed the commission. He says that at the time, Nat Leventhal, a fixture in local government, weighed in on the need for for an official critic and overseer of the mayor, the council and city agencies.

LANE: He always said it's very hard to govern the city of New York. And having someone out there even just hurling bombs, was something valuable. Because if you look through the criticism you might actually find some real problems.

REPORTER: But Lane says he and his colleagues omitted something that has come to cripple the Public Advocate's office - a guaranteed source of funding.

LANE: Probably we made a mistake by not putting in a guaranteed budget in there as we did for the Independent Budget Office.

REPORTER: In the 90s, under its original officeholder, Mark Green, the public advocate was a prominent position in city government and Green and Mayor Giuliani did regular battle with each other, on issues such as police misconduct and the city's failure to investigate child abuse claims.

Many scholars and government watchdogs say Giuliani's brash style provided the perfect foil for Green, and allowed him to generate plenty of headlines prior to his run for mayor in 2001. In contrast, Bloomberg doesn't throw his elbows around like Giuliani, and Gotbaum is a more low-key figure, which has caused her office to recede from the public eye. Doug Muzzio teaches at Baruch College.

MUZZIO: The consensus is that the office has somewhat atrophied under her. That she has looked at some important things but has not been the vigorous public advocate that Green was.

REPORTER: Gene Russianoff, of the New York Public Interest and Research Group defends both Gotbaum and the position. He says his organization has frequently turned to Gotbaum's office when it was getting nowhere with the mayor's agencies. And that getting rid of the office would be a big mistake, given that in New York City, the mayor is much more powerful than in other cities.

Dick Dadey of Citizens Union also thinks Gotbaum has done a good job, but that she's been handicapped by the institution itself.

DADEY: The office in its current form is not working. And we should not have it continue in its current form.

REPORTER: However, he doesn't think it would be right to simply eliminate the office, without looking at city government as a whole. And perhaps giving the council greater oversight powers.

For Betsy Gotbaum, it's been a struggle in recent weeks, not only to justify the need for a public advocate, but also to defend her style and her legacy. She points to work increasing women's access to reproductive health services, as well as helping special education students and victims of domestic violence.

GOTBAUM: One of the most important things I've done lately is the office's recommendations which were done on a report for maintaining mayoral control of the schools was used as a blueprint for the Assembly when it came up with its legislation. ... I was very proud of that.

REPORTER: Gotbaum says she's just not a fundamentally antagonistic person.

GOTBAUM: I tried very hard, in very many cases to hold the mayor's feet to the fire. The problem is, it’s very difficult to do. He has a lock on the airwaves, and in addition to that he has a lock on a lot of money. and so it is difficult to do that. And I'm not a screamer and a yeller.

REPORTER: But Gotbaum was furious when the Council cut her office's budget by 40 percent, so she called a press conference. There she was joined by the men who are competing to replace her, including her predecessor, Mark Green.

GREEN: It is absurd that an office intended to be a watchdog over City Hall is being gutted by City Hall. Since when do speeders ban radar guns or Wall Street cut the SEC?

REPORTER: Despite the strong words, the Council didn't restore the funding. And the next public advocate will have a budget and staff so small, the office will barely be able to do its job. In a way Green and his fellow candidates will be struggling on two fronts in the months ahead: trying to become the next Public Advocate, even as they fight to save the office itself. For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.

OUTRO: In the days ahead, we'll be following up with a look at the candidates themselves. They'll be debating each other at a forum this morning.