Mayor de Blasio makes appointments, 2014 (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)
Deliberative. Hands-on. Micro-manager. Terms used by a variety of people to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has also described himself as such. De Blasio is known to put considerable thought before action, demand regular reports from his functionaries, and go through multiple levels of input before arriving at policy decisions.
While de Blasio has been known for years as especially deliberative, sometimes to the point of inaction, his close style of management has defined his mayoral administration from its first days - beginning in its post-election transition period - and now into its third year. This reputation has at times conflicted with a sense of disarray, growing in recent months, and the mayor saying that he was not informed by deputies about important matters, like an embarrassing land use deal.
The cautious, exacting approach extends to each major decision, but has perhaps been nowhere as pronounced as with top-level appointments to city agencies and mayoral offices. For this, the mayor has been critiqued many times - not so much for the people he chooses, but for the time he takes to make those choices and the agenda he imposes on the people he appoints. Experts largely applaud his efforts to ensure a diverse and talented administration but say that his glacial pace can hinder operations and that efforts to wholly push his political philosophy can interfere with efficient governance.
De Blasio has also been loathe to let people go, and when he has made top-level personnel shifts, he has regularly found other positions in city government for those on the move.
The mayor invited widespread criticism in the first few weeks before and after he took office when it became apparent that he wasn’t moving with the same level of expediency as his predecessor. Ahead of the mayor’s first day in office, The New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum wrote, “Twenty-four hours before he takes charge of the nation’s largest municipality, Mr. de Blasio is on track for the slowest creation of a New York City government in a generation.”
It took months for all the highest posts across the city to be filled and most final holdovers from the previous administration to be replaced. At each announcement of an appointment, the mayor emphasized the time and effort that went into the search and the key criteria of consideration. At an unrelated January 29 2014 press conference, de Blasio was asked about his pace of appointments, and said, “We are making decisions on personnel in the same way we said we would from the beginning. We want highly effective people. We want people who share the values of this administration. We want people who reflect the diversity of New York City. One by one, we’re finding folks of the highest quality levels.”
Earlier that month, on January 16, de Blasio announced the appointment of Commissioner Mary Bassett to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Commissioner Rose Pierre-Louis to the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, the mayor said, “We're looking for effective people who can achieve in the context of the public sector of New York City, a particularly challenging venue. People are ready to be effective in this context. We're looking for people who share the progressive values of this administration. We're looking for people who understand the people of New York City – an administration that reflects in every way the people of this city.”
On February 28, 2014, when two months into his term the mayor announced three new hires -- Nisha Agarwal as Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Lorraine Grillo as President of the School Construction Authority and Steve Banks as Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration -- he said, “We’ve said all along, as we make appointments, our standards are clear. We need people who share our progressive values related to the future of this city. We need people who are effective and experienced. And we need people who represent the fullness of New York City.”
He also went on to defend his pace of appointments. In response to a reporter’s questions, he said, “I think what we’ve done is we’ve said we are looking for the very, very best. We will make sure we get the best. We’ll make sure we get people who are truly effective, who have our values and who reflect the whole population of this city. And we’re just not going to compromise on that….And I can tell you this much from our personnel process: if I’m not satisfied, I say go back and get me more names. So I’m very hands on about this and I pride myself on having created very effective teams for quite a long time.”
Later, at the April 18, 2014 appointment of Cynthia Lopez as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, de Blasio stressed the “exhaustive search” that went into the process. “It was obviously essential to find a leader who understood the everyday life of the industry right here in this city,” he said. “But just as important. We needed someone with a deep appreciation of what these industries at their best mean for the city and can mean in the future.”
Industry insiders saw Lopez as a controversial choice for the position, lacking the necessary business know-how to deal with a multibillion dollar industry. Lopez eventually resigned, serving through October 2015, and in February of this year was replaced by Julie Menin, who was commissioner of Consumer Affairs at the time (a new Department of Consumer Affairs commissioner was named about three months later from outside the administration).
In April 2014, four months into his tenure, DNAinfo obtained a memo written by de Blasio’s then-Chief of Staff Laura Santucci to agency heads that showed the strong control the mayor wanted to exercise over the hiring process at city agencies. It seemed to indicate de Blasio’s general approach, extending from the top down to mid-level personnel. As might be expected, agencies were told to select candidates from within the agency, respondents to online job postings, and resumes sent by the Mayor’s Office of Appointments. But, after that, the memo stated, “you must submit requests for approval to hire the candidate from your Deputy Mayor and for final approval from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff prior to appointment. All approvals are subject to City Hall background integrity screening of the candidate.”
Two years later, the modus operandi seems to be the same. “The mayor’s really committed to having the most excellent, talented, diverse administration possible,” said Rachel Lauter, director of the Mayor’s Office of Appointments, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “It’s a deliberative process. We want to make sure we get it right.” The office of appointments helps city agencies and mayoral offices in recruitment and development of senior leadership. The office also advises the mayor on the more than 300 boards and commissions under his purview.
While allowing for due diligence, the deliberative approach to choosing commissioners and deputy mayors takes time, which seems to have worked for the mayor in terms of fairly strong continuity thus far, but against him last year when high-level appointees resigned or were transferred and their departments went without replacements for months at a stretch. For his part, de Blasio appears content with leaving positions vacant for as long as it takes to find the person that meets his requirements on qualifications, diversity, and shared progressive vision.
At the end of August 2015, Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios-Paoli stepped down at a time when the city was facing a rising homelessness crisis and a barrage of bad press around it. Then, in December, Commissioner of Homeless Services Gilbert Taylor resigned as the mayor announced a comprehensive 90-day review of the city’s entire homeless services system. At the time, de Blasio said at a press conference of Barrios-Paoli’s position, “What we do in this administration is we're very careful and very choosy about the people we bring into senior roles.”
The Barrios-Paoli and Taylor departures showed features of de Blasio’s personnel approach: each was placed in a new role in city governance (Barrios-Paoli's unpaid) and an extended process unfolded for replacing each.
In January of this year, Dr. Herminia Palacio was appointed deputy mayor, five months after Barrios-Paoli’s departure. Homeless services fell under the supervision of Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks. Following the April release of the 90-day review, the department now has an integrated management structure with HRA and DHS reporting to Banks as the Commissioner of Social Services.
“Candidates are currently being identified for the positions of chief homeless services administrator and chief social services administrator and appointments will be announced when they are made,” said HRA Press Secretary Lourdes Centeno in a May 19 email. More than a month later, hires do not appear to have been made.
At a December 2015 roundtable with the press, the mayor downplayed the vacancies, telling reporters, “Look, I think, we have, overall, a high level of continuity and a lot of really effective people.”
“I’ve been doing personnel work a long time, there’s no such thing as getting it 100 percent right,” he added. “I certainly try and learn from each situation and I can also say it’s a lot nicer to make personnel decisions one at a time than what we had to go through in the transition, which was, you know, dozens and dozens of key roles simultaneously. But I’d say overall, I’m very satisfied at the personnel we’ve put together.”
For top-level vacancies, commissioners for instance, the next ranking official takes over an agency, per the city charter, before a permanent replacement can be chosen. Sometimes those interim commissioners are permanently appointed. Even then, however, the process is not instant.
This was the case with the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, where Michael Owh was officially elevated to the post of director after managing the department for two months in an interim capacity. Similarly, at the Department of Small Business Services, deputy commissioner Gregg Bishop was promoted to commissioner about five months after former SBS Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer was appointed as president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Torres-Springer replaced one of the last commissioners under de Blasio who had been appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Kyle Kimball.
Political observers and experts agree for the most part with the mayor’s philosophy of careful consideration before making any appointment, and particularly so with his commitment to ensuring greater diversity across the administration. Under de Blasio, the representation of people of color in top leadership positions (agency heads, mayoral office heads and cabinet) has increased to 46 percent this year, from 25 percent in 2013, Mayor Bloomberg’s final year in office. The number of Latino and Asian leaders went up dramatically and the gender ratio shifted toward female (from 47 percent to 55 percent). De Blasio has received steady criticism for not appointing a representative number of Latinos to top positions.
“He’s obviously been very careful,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “He’s made a number of pretty good appointments, and some that haven’t worked out. In general, it’s been a careful and systematic search process that had pretty good outreach and put together an administration that’s pretty representative of the city at large.”
He said de Blasio’s appointments consisted of little political patronage and on balance, “it turned out better than I expected.” While Sherrill was referring to commissioners, agency heads and deputy mayors, de Blasio has received some criticism for giving commission and board positions to campaign donors, a practice recently spotlighted by both DNAinfo and The Daily News in different ways.
There are ongoing questions about how the mayor makes sure top-level administration appointees fit with his political philosophy, including in areas of city operation and management that some say shouldn’t worry about anything other than efficient and effective service-delivery.
“Everything in [de Blasio’s] administration seems tied to advancing his political agenda,” said Theodore Hamm, chair of Journalism and New Media Studies at St. Joseph’s College. “People who are appointed are expected to adopt that perspective,” he added of the mayor’s brand of progressivism.
The mayor proclaims this freely. At the January 5 appointment of Deputy Mayor Palacio, he said, “As we have named key figures in this administration over the last two years, we take the occasion each time to reiterate the goals, the values we bring to this process. And it’s important to say it again – we believe in creating an administration that is fundamentally progressive in its values. And therefore, we look for talent that shares those values and has been effective in implementing progressive values.”
De Blasio has been boastful about insisting on a focus on equity in all agencies, requiring that his commissioners insert narrative about how they are fostering equity in their portions of The Mayor’s Management Report.
Hamm compared de Blasio to his two predecessors and their method of governance. Rudolph Giuliani was the prosecutor, Hamm said, and Bloomberg the CEO mayor, while de Blasio is the politician. He said Bloomberg was a “dedicated technocrat” who made decisions regardless of whether they were popular or not. “But he moved quickly whereas de Blasio is working on politician time and looking for people who will benefit his administration politically,” Hamm said. “Bloomberg’s people put policy before politics. De Blasio’s administration does it the other way around.”
Hamm did say that under de Blasio, there have been no “glaring examples” of people being appointed to positions where they don’t belong, like Bloomberg’s selection of Cathie Black as schools chancellor. Black was widely criticized for lacking necessary experience in education administration and she was removed after only three months in the position.
Jeff Smith, former professor of policy and advocacy at The New School’s Milano School, has a different take. Smith believes de Blasio’s policies and management are analogous to Bloomberg’s. The mayor sets a broad agenda, Smith said, and then defers to commissioners. “In some ways, this is a Bloomberg-style city government bent to a more progressive agenda,” he said. “It's tightly managed, fiscally responsible, with a disciplined focus on timelines and metrics in the same way that it was under Bloomberg. I think, after 12 years of Bloomberg, that's become the culture of city government.”
Few would argue for a set timeline for making appointments, but most would say that vacancies should be filled expeditiously, though responsibly. The mayor’s appointments director, Lauter, said she can think of no instance where they set an absolute date for filling a vacancy.
“One of the big questions facing any executive is trying to keep the appointment process moving,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, “because vacancies, particularly long term vacancies, can substantially stymie even the best and most well-crafted agenda.”
This seemed apparent with the City Planning Commission, where a position that had been vacant for about five months was filled right before a vote on key pieces of the mayor’s affordable housing plan.
Birdsell also pointed out that while interim commissioners may be qualified and skilled, they’re hampered without the full authority to put an agenda in motion, particularly if that agenda can be overruled by a permanently appointed commissioner. “It’s obvious that you need to be deliberate or deliberative but every day that an agency goes unled is a day that that agency is underperforming its potential,” he said.
Ideally, Birdsell said, the administration should develop a roster of “shadow applicants” to fill vacancies instead of starting from scratch when there’s turnover.
Lauter recognizes the inevitability of churn in city administration and says the city does proactively prepare for vacancies. “One thing I’m mindful of is building the pipeline, building the bench,” she said. “We’re always thinking of deputy mayors, commissioners, et cetera, who could step up to the plate.”
As the Mayor’s Office of Appointments starts the process of vetting suitable candidates, they look internally and externally for people who “share [the mayor’s] progressive values and have the skills to get things done,” Lauter said. Administration officials did not respond to follow-up questions about the size of the appointments office and other details.
Robert Doar, who served as HRA commissioner under Bloomberg, understands the complexity of the task. "They want to get the right person who fits the need of the Mayor and the City of New York,” said Doar, now the Morgridge Fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They’re tough decisions and they’re important and they want to get it right...It’s not a matter of policy. I’m sympathetic to any mayor trying to put together a good team.”
For the most part, turnover at the highest levels of the de Blasio administration has been low. He’s retained most of his top functionaries -- three of four deputy mayors and commissioners at major agencies such as the NYPD, the Department of Education, Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Transportation, and others.
But there have been a spate of recent top-level departures. In May, de Blasio’s press secretary, Karen Hinton, said she was stepping down. Hinton, who had been with the administration for about a year, admitted in exit interviews that there were chemistry problems during her tenure. De Blasio quickly replaced her with Eric Phillips from within his communications team. Then, in a span of two days at the end of June, the administration saw three more high-level resignations. First came the announcement that Maya Wiley, the mayor’s chief counsel, would step down from her post on July 15 to take over as chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and start teaching at The New School. The New York Times reported that Wiley was discouraged after being left out of the mayor’s inner circle. Just one day later, the administration announced the departure of Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, and Nilda Mesa, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The mayor named temporary replacements to handle these portfolios. Veteran DEP official Vincent Sapienza took over as acting commissioner and senior MOS official Dan Zarrilli will oversee sustainability initiatives till a permanent director is found.
At a news conference on July 1, de Blasio refuted that the resignations could be perceived as a consequence of the controversies currently surrounding his office. “It’s just a normal course of government,” he told reporters. “You know a lot of people will go into government for a couple of years, and then go onto something else....And there’s a lot of folks ready to come up from the next layer down and take on bigger responsibilities. So, it’s quite normal.”
De Blasio has been criticized for keeping some who resigned their positions or were removed by the mayor in the larger fold. Both Barrios-Paoli and Stacey Cumberbatch, who left as commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services without explanation, ended up at NYC Health + Hospitals rather than exiting city government entirely (Barrios-Paoli in an unpaid board position). Former Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor left that position and was soon named a judge in Family Court.
This pattern is unlikely to continue next year as de Blasio heads into his re-election campaign and takes stock of his policy successes and failures while high-level officials also evaluate their plans. It bears observing who will stick it out with the embattled mayor through his re-election battle and beyond, if he wins a second term.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE SPECIFICS OF TOP-LEVEL DEPARTURES UNDER MAYOR DE BLASIO
Although the administration has made efforts to create a continuing pipeline of candidates for senior leadership, vacancies in the administration have lasted anywhere from two months to more than five months -
Department of Consumer Affairs - After former DCA Commissioner Julie Menin was appointed to lead the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in early February this year, DCA went without a permanent commissioner for almost four months. Her successor, Lorelei Salas, was appointed in May.
Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment - Menin replaced Cynthia Lopez as MOME Commissioner more than five months after Lopez’s resignation was confirmed (Lopez continued in the role through the end of October, three months before Menin’s appointment.)
Health and Human Services - Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli resigned at the end of August 2015 (although she served through September). Her replacement, Herminia Palacio, was appointed three months later in January 2016.
Mayor’s Office of Contract Services - Lisette Camilo, former MOCS director, was appointed to head the Department of Citywide Administrative Services in early January this year, replacing Stacey Cumberbatch who became an assistant vice president at New York City Health + Hospitals. After nearly three months, near the end of March, interim MOCS Director Michael Owh was officially promoted to the position.
Department of Homeless Services - Gilbert Taylor left his commissioner post in December 2015 and was made a Family Court judge in March 2016. HRA Commissioner Steven Banks then ran the agency in an interim capacity till he officially took over following the release of the city’s homeless services review. DHS is still looking for top-level staff, though.
Department of Small Business Services - After former Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer was made president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation at the end of June 2015, SBS was run by deputy commissioner Gregg Bishop. Five months in, he was formally elevated to commissioner in late November.
Counsel to the Mayor - The administration announced late last month that Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s top lawyer, would be stepping down from her post on July 15. She was appointed by the mayor to chair the Civilian Complaint Review Board and will also be joining The New School as the Henry Cohen Professor for Management and Urban Policy and Senior Vice President for Social Justice.
Department of Environmental Protection - Commissioner Emily Lloyd, who had earlier been on medical leave, retired her post at the end of June. Vincent Sapienza, a veteran of the DEP for 33 years, took over as acting commissioner while the administration searches for a permanent replacement.
Mayor’s Office of Sustainability - Nilda Mesa, director of MOS, resigned on June 30 to “spend time with her family and explore new opportunities,” said the administration. Dan Zarrilli, senior director for climate policy and programs, will oversee the office in an interim capacity.
Note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the nature of former Deputy Mayor Barrios-Paoli's role at Health + Hospitals, which is unpaid.
Note: This article has been updated with additional personnel movement in the de Blasio administration that occurred just after the article was published, as well as recent comments from the Mayor on the subject.