Tish James' inauguration (photo: Mayor's Office)
On Tuesday, Feb. 26, New York City voters will head to the polls to elect the next Public Advocate, a position vacated in January when the previous officeholder, Letitia James, was sworn in as State Attorney General.
New York is the only city in the country that has an elected city-wide Public Advocate, a unique position charged with helping individual residents and addressing broader city service problems. We’re better off for it.
Unfortunately, 30 years after the position was created, too few understand the role of the Public Advocate. And, as New Yorkers head to the polls to vote, there is a simultaneous push to eliminate the office, a move that is misguided and irresponsible.
I served as New York City’s second Public Advocate, from 2001 through 2009. With a budget of around $3 million (that’s about 0.03% of the total city budget) we investigated complaints about city services, proposed solutions, introduced legislation, and held the rest of city government’s feet to the fire to improve services.
We were successful. So were the other four individuals who served in the position.
Sometimes it starts with a single complaint. A family living in a homeless shelter called my office about problems getting food stamps. This led to an investigation uncovering a string of problems both with the food stamp application process and the offices of the Human Resources Administration, the New York City agency responsible for helping people access public benefits.
Other times, the office hears from groups of people, like parents of students who called my office to complain about being backlogged in the special education evaluation process.
In both these cases, and many others, we were able to force the city to fix the service problems. Letitia James did the same for tenants, children in foster care, children with disabilities, and others.
The fact of the matter is, the office has a three-decade-long track record of helping people in the city.
In the face of the facts, a City Council member has introduced a misguided bill to eliminate the office. Those who have sought to shutter the office have two basic criticisms: they claim the office is a stepping stone to higher office and that the role is filled by others. The first is true, but misses the point. The second is 100 percent wrong.
First, every office, aside from the office of the President of the United States, is a potential stepping stone. If the person who holds a term-limited position (all city-wide offices have term limits) does his or her job well, we should want that person to run for higher office and let the voters decide.
Second, there is no other elected official with a city-wide perch who can see service problem patterns from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to Baychester, The Bronx, connect the dots, and use the power of the bully pulpit and the law (via legislation) to get the problems fixed.
But, after my eight years in the Public Advocate’s office, I realize the office isn’t perfect. Instead of re-debating whether the office should exist, we should talk about strengthening it.
The office needs a guaranteed independent budget. Currently the office’s budget is decided at the whims of the Mayor and City Council, the very entities the Public Advocate is intended to scrutinize.
Furthermore, while I was Public Advocate, we received around 12,000 calls a year about problems with city services. 311, the city hotline for information and complaints, receives tens of millions. The Public Advocate’s office should be linked with 311 to give it a broader view of the problems New Yorkers are experiencing and the trends that need to be brought to the attention of the administration.
As New Yorkers get ready to head to the polls to vote in the next Public Advocate, they should consider which of the 17 candidates would best fit the ombudsman role. And those in government should get to work to strengthen the office and better ensure city services work better.
Betsy Gotbaum, a former New York City Public Advocate, is Executive Director of Citizens Union, a government reform organization.
As Executive Director of Citizens Union Foundation, Gotbaum also serves as publisher of Gotham Gazette.