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What Does Good-Government Mean These Days?

by Conn Nugent

"These are good-government proposals," declared Randy Mastro earlier this month, referring to the fourteen amendments just approved by his controversial 1999 City Charter Revision Commission. It was a counter-punch from the chairman of a body that had taken some hard knocks from organizations newspapers describe as "good-government groups." The groups had been quoted to the effect that the Mastro Commission's devotion to an incumbent Mayor, preference for backroom decisions, and let's-get-it-over-with attitude evoked nothing so much as the salad days of bad-government Tammany Hall.

But Mastro has a point. There are some good-government positions among the commission's fourteen amendments. More precisely, some of the Mastro proposals mirror proposals that have been advocated at one time or other by one or more of those same good-government organizations -- ideas like holding special elections to fill public-office vacancies; strengthening the powers of the Mayor while limiting those of the City Council; combining old agencies while constituting new ones.

Actually, "The Civics," as the good-government groups like to call themselves, are not of one mind about the Mastro proposals, or much else besides. There are, in fact, testy disagreements between organizations and within organizations about what exactly "good-government" implies. The Civics stood together this summer for the limited proposition that the Mastro Commission process was so bad that it would have tainted even indisputably benevolent substance. And the main process problem was lack of time. The commission's origin in Mayor Giuliani's distaste for Mark Green wasn't as offensive to the Civics as the inadequate time allotted for its work. Nine weeks over July and August just didn't meet an implicit process standard of what constitutes a decent period for considering major changes to the City's constitution. That Mastro and his staff worked hard over those nine weeks couldn't atone for the original sin of irretrievably bad process.

Increasingly, in fact, the only common denominator among those who carry the good-government banner is that process matters -- that open discussion and patient deliberation are always good. The Civics agree on the need for public meetings, accessible public records, and extensive public participation.

There are, however, two problems with this fixation on process. The first is that many of the manifestations of process -- hearings, forums, consultations, town meetings -- tend to be excruciating affairs, full of banality and rant. Their most important value often consists of the fact that the flak-catchers at the front of the room can later attest to a "public dialogue." The second problem is that good process doesn't mean good results. Everybody knows that sometimes in life you have to close the door and figure out how to steamroll changes over handwringers worrying about consensus. There could not have been such a quick drop in New York's crime rate, for example, if Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton first had to undertake extensive consultations with that abstraction called "the community."

The 1990s penchant for process follows suit on the late-1960s enthusiasm for decentralization. Remember the sequence of Little City Halls, Community Development Corporations, District Community Boards and Local School Boards? A few of the Community Boards appear to have slowed some bad development, and a few of the School Boards seem to have bolstered some good teachers, and both have certainly produced numerous candidates for the City Council, but on the whole the two bodies -- and other decentralisms -- must be counted as disappointments. Certainly they lack democratic legitimacy: fewer than two percent of those eligible voted in the local school board elections this May.

Decentralization, at least in its hyper-democratic form, now looks like a reaction to a yet more venerable good government article of faith, one that dates back eighty years and more. That is the conviction that the charges of government -- like schools, and airports, and railroads, and elections -- should as much as possible be vested in "intermediary public authorities," blue-ribbon institutions, insulated from politics, that could serve the commonweal without the corruption and cronyism of Tammany Hall. Hence the Board of Education, the School Construction Authority, the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Board of Elections.

The problem, of course, is that they haven't worked very well, at least not lately. Mayor Giuliani, Speaker Vallone and silent allies within the system believe that the first step toward improvement of the schools should be the abolition of the Board of Ed and a return to "accountability" through a Department of Education directly responsible to the Mayor (the recent successes of Richard Daley in Chicago are frequently cited). Nobody thinks very highly of the School Construction Authority -- a gubernatorial commission is investigating charges of corruption -- and even the SCA admits it hasn't been able to ensure safe, durable new buildings. The Port Authority runs two of the lowest-rated airports in the nation and, from a City perspective, chronically favors the Jersey side of the Hudson when it comes to big-ticket items like containerized port facilities. The MTA has rebounded in recent years, true, but service has plateaued, and its Governing Board, scared of its own shadow, still can't muster the gumption to ask for a Second Avenue Subway. The Board of Elections is technophobic and manifestly incompetent.

So what does good-government have to say about all this?

Even if we concede that good-government is a limited question of processes and structures, what are the processes and structures appropriate to the early 21st Century? What are the processes and structures that will make for better-educated kids, sturdier schools, swifter transport, safer streets, and meaningful elections? What are the good-government positions of today that will actually build a better City?

This search for relevance can make you yearn for Tammany. Not the dirty old pocket-lining, jury-fixing Tammany, but the chummy clubhouse Tammany of high voter turnout, participatory politics, neighborhood jobs, local access to influence, and a sense of civic pertinence for the average family.

Mind you, Tammany never really ran the City on its own. It (merely!) tended to monopolize the organs of government. And from that position of strength, Tammany... could cut deals -- deals with unions, deals with religions, and, most importantly, deals with the movers and shakers of capital. It even cut deals with the good-government types (arrangements more mutually advantageous than either side liked to admit). During the heyday of Tammany, our City's grandparents erected fabulous new public works that provided pure water and inexpensive transportation. They ran good schools for poor kids from illiterate families. They built thousands of acres of user-friendly housing that typical people could afford to live in, even buy. They did all this with much attendant bigotry and discrimination and callousness, with pollution and filth, and worse besides, but they did it.

The good-government movement, born as a reaction to Tammany, now has to figure out what it stands for in a post-Tammany world. And, as these things go, it would do well to consult the genius of the system it helped overthrow.


Conn Nugent is executive director of Citizens Union.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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