Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/ Mayor's Office)
At the end of his first year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his new year’s resolution for 2015 was to be on time more often. The chronically late mayor mostly made good on that resolution. At the end of 2015, NY1’s Errol Louis asked de Blasio for a resolution and the mayor didn’t come up with anything on the spot -- I subsequently offered several to him in a Daily News column.
He accomplished few of them.
As 2016 came to a close, de Blasio didn't make an explicit resolution, but he seems to have settled on better addressing the city’s homelessness crisis as his major area for improvement in 2017.
On multiple occasions recently, the mayor has acknowledged that the city has been unsuccessful driving down the shelter census, which has increased significantly during de Blasio’s three years in office, to about 60,000, continuing an upward trend over decades that accelerated under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While admitting the need to do better, de Blasio has also said the crisis would be even worse but for his administration’s actions, such as increasing rent subsidies and providing lawyers for thousands of tenants facing eviction.
When I asked the mayor at a December 29 press conference what mistakes he’s made in 2016 and what he hopes to do differently in 2017, he cited homelessness, but also said, “I’m very tough on myself. I’m very tough on my team...I want perfection from myself, I want perfection from them. But I make mistakes all the time and then I try and fix them. I try and figure out how I can do better. But I don’t make it a point to sort of self-flagellate nor to exaggerate when something goes right. I try and keep an even keel.”
He did not offer anything specific beyond homelessness.
So, like last year, I am suggesting several new year’s resolutions for Mayor de Blasio. The list would have been slightly different had de Blasio not moved in 2016 to clean up some of his messes: closing down the Campaign for One New York, limiting his meetings with lobbyists, and cutting top outside advisors (“agents of the city”) from government meetings, for example.
Still, there are a number of things the mayor can resolve to do better in 2017, if he so chooses:
Show, Don’t Tell
De Blasio has struggled to portray a strong image as an in-charge, on-top-of-things Mayor. He’s shown more interest in broad themes than nuts-and-bolts operations, though he’s recognized the need to be more present in neighborhoods. While de Blasio has started to hold town hall meetings throughout the city, he is still not as active as he could or should be on-site as city employees carry out essential tasks and provide public services.
It doesn’t have to be as hokey as helping fill a pothole, but more activity along those lines would be helpful to New Yorkers, city workers, and de Blasio himself -- both practically and politically. The mayor doesn’t even have to do any of the work, but he could more regularly visit what is happening “in the field,” see how it’s being done, thank those doing it, and show New Yorkers he’s overseeing things up-close.
Own Your Accomplishments
The mayor should hold more events to showcase his administration’s many accomplishments. Right now the mayor is known for his impressive implementation of universal pre-kindergarten. But, he could be known for much more if he were to put forth a sustained effort to promote and own what his administration is devoting resources to in order to create the more equal city de Blasio wants.
Instead of being known solely as The Pre-K Mayor, de Blasio could fairly easily also be known as The Affordable Housing Mayor; The Small Business Mayor; The Gender Equity Mayor; The Street Safety Mayor; The NYCHA Mayor; The Renewable Energy Mayor.
Can you imagine de Blasio holding 10 events on one subject within a month? (As, for example, Governor Cuomo just did on the Second Avenue Subway.)
I’m not sure de Blasio ever did that on pre-K. And, somehow, he still hasn’t done it on crime, despite the fact that crime has continued to trend downward during his tenure (while he’s also implemented several aspects of criminal justice reform). There are many opportunities to own these accomplishments and others. De Blasio may be closest on street safety (Vision Zero), affordable housing, and crime, but he’s nowhere near “there,” and could be in 2017.
Circle the Wagons at the City Council
The City Council is key to de Blasio accomplishing some of his goals. The mayor has some stalwart allies in the Council: seven members already endorsed him for re-election, and others are sure to follow. And, de Blasio has made holding a town hall in every Council district a goal and has done a good number so far.
But, he’s also faced some tough resistance to certain affordable housing projects, criticism of his management, and other pushback. It’s only natural that as a mayor’s tenure extends some relationships will fray while others blossom. De Blasio needs to make sure that he maintains key relationships, that he works with new Council allies, and that he doesn’t allow too many relationships to deteriorate. It could also benefit him to work on some of the already-frayed relationships -- with, say, City Council Member Rory Lancman, a steady de Blasio critic.
Explain Your Plans Better
De Blasio has promised a new outline of his fight against homelessness. Why don’t New Yorkers have a better sense of what’s already happening?
And, there are other plenty of other problems to tackle, whether citywide, by borough, or in specific neighborhoods. The mayor will surely announce new initiatives during his February State of the City speech, and he has a re-election platform to lay out.
Even before he announces new homelessness-fighting measures and puts them together with ongoing programs to show a more complete picture, there has been an avoidable deficiency in how the city’s efforts are presented.
Why not hold a press conference to make a detailed, clear presentation of the different pieces and how they fit together -- on homelessness, or transportation equity, or any number of complex subjects? The mayor does this each year for his budget address and he has given multiple education-focused speeches, with accompanying presentation slides. He could easily do this type of thing more often to showcase the steps his administration is taking on key policy issues.
Stop Blurring the Lines
As with the Campaign for One New York, other efforts that have resulted in law enforcement investigations, and his “agents of the city” declaration, de Blasio has made a pattern of blurring ethical lines, if not crossing legal ones. Even as he’s moved away from some of the more troublesome practices -- like allowing a consultant who has clients with city business to sit in on government meetings -- It happened again when City Hall released a video touting the de Blasio administration’s accomplishments and praising the mayor himself.
Instead of taking all kinds of action that require conflicts-of-interest and legal guidance, not to mention rhetorical tap-dancing, de Blasio should resolve to a higher standard.
Build and Repair Other Relationships
Things are probably beyond repair with Governor Cuomo, but it can only help to inch things in a more positive direction. Likewise Scott Stringer, another fellow Democrat, but the mayor should figure out ways to pull the city comptroller closer -- see, for example, how Cuomo made Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a special prosecutor in police killings of unarmed individuals. One easy way is the private-sector retirement savings program that the city is developing. There are a host of other potential collaborations that may give the comptroller a little more pause before excoriating the de Blasio administration at every possible turn.
There are less far-fetched opportunities for the mayor to build and repair other non-City Council relationships, though. Which state lawmakers should de Blasio look to partner with beyond Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who must remain a major de Blasio ally? Assemblymembers Michael Blake, Nily Rozic, and Brian Kavanagh make sense; State Senator Liz Krueger is an incredibly obvious ally the mayor should do more with, as is Senator Gustavo Rivera; and why not embrace the handful of Brooklyn state Senators who represent much of the mayor’s base, as well as other Democratic state legislators from across the five boroughs.
Then there is the quaint notion of bipartisanship. De Blasio has found some common ground with State Senator Martin Golden, he should find other opportunities to work with Republicans in both city and state government. Staten Island is always a good place for this type of effort. City Council Minority Leader Steve Matteo is the type of elected official who cares far less about political party than he does about getting things done for his constituents -- plenty that can be done with him. This type of work may even help improve the mayor's standing with white New Yorkers, who, according to opinion polls, have strongly unfavorable views of him.
Manage Better Before Crises
It’s the nature of government (and other sectors) that reforms are made in response to crisis. But, it’s clear from de Blasio’s management style, the city’s ballooning budget, and other evidence, that de Blasio has not made priorities of operational and organizational reforms.
Has he asked his deputy mayors and agency commissioners for reimagined org charts, with explanations? Has he asked commissioners to trim the fat at their agencies where they have shifted focus from the prior administration? A little of the latter, but not enough.
It can be good to look like you're responding to a crisis with reform, but it's also important to not always look or be so reactive when being more proactive can help prevent problems.
The Rivington House sage made it clear that First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris has too much on his plate. And while Shorris’ office is bringing in a new high-level administrator, there may be room in 2017 for restructuring the upper management of City Hall, perhaps adding a deputy mayor, which could then lead to a new look at every city agency, how each is being managed, and where improvements can be made. Some new policy ideas could also emerge, and that wouldn’t be half-bad, for the mayor or New Yorkers.
Figure Out Your Media Strategy
De Blasio has said several times over the years that he has struggled to communicate. He’s rearranged his press strategy several times, made a number of changes to his communications team (a new communications director, his third, is about to start mid-January), and failed to develop any semblance of good will among the City Hall press corps (he hasn’t really tried). De Blasio has significantly limited the occasions on which he takes questions from members of that press corps, and rarely hosts press conferences at City Hall.
Most, if not all, members of the media think de Blasio should be more available to the press, of course. The mayor thinks the City Hall press corps ‘doesn’t get it’ and is often stuck on trivial matters, like the mayor’s helicopter rides or law enforcement investigations that de Blasio thinks shouldn’t overshadow the noble work he’s doing. Speaking of something de Blasio finds trivial, there’s been little press attention of late on the mayor’s gym routine, but that’s another good resolution for de Blasio in 2017: find a gym near Gracie Mansion or City Hall, and only visit the Park Slope Y on the weekends. Unfortunately, doing this in 2017 would look like a cynical re-election year ploy, but it would be welcome by many anyway.
De Blasio should be more open and frank, with the press and the public. He should hold more press conferences and take more questions when he does hold them. The mayor should give more one-on-one interviews to more outlets, especially if he’s going to continue to limit his press conference Q&As, and he should do more quick "gaggles" with reporters who follow him to public events where he's giving remarks or marching in a parade. And, City Hall should make a more concerted effort to get city commissioners in front of reporters and onto the airwaves.
The mayor regularly misses opportunities for “good news” press events, a mystifying pattern since he took office, and another thing that is easily fixable.
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette