Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Mayor, The Times’ Timing, and a Proper Ordering

The New York Times editorial page now seems to have a new and interesting relationship with the Mayor. It comes down to the Times’ timing. We are not sure what is the proper metaphor to offer. Is it that you can’t lock the barn door after the horse has escaped? Or that you shouldn’t put the horse before the cart? Or maybe it is a slightly reversed variant on the classic “You broke it: You bought it,” that comes out “You bought it? Guess what; If you didn’t notice, it’s broken, so now you gotta fix it.”


Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: LPC and Developer Conduct

We have asked once before whether the Times editorial page was ineffectually pleading to rein in the Mayor, after the fact, atoning for the damage they did when endorsing the notion that Mr. Bloomberg should be ushered into a third term by special exemption from term limits. The time we are referring to, we and a Times editorial were both concerned about the Landmarks and Preservation Commission doing its job so that it is not “routinely outflanked by developers.” To wit, we wrote:

Is the Times editorial page doing penance or trying to make up for the damage it has done by its earlier editorial on term limits? The editorial page previously expressed the belief that Mayor Bloomberg should be unleashed to serve a third term by a special exemption from term limits, but then yesterday's editorial vaguely hopes that the Mayor will begin reining in developers, something he has never been willing to do. How valid could such hope be?
(See: Sunday, October 19, 2008, Building the Right Landmarks Case; Wrong Building which talks about the Commission’s lack of independence from the Mayor.)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Editorial Page Deja Vu & Campaign Spending

The Times editorial page is at it again, so we are going to have to ask an awfully similar question. It’s going to seem like deja vu with the Times again hoping to rein in the Mayor after propelling Mr. Bloomberg perhaps irretrievably close to his coveted third term.

The Times editorial page recently ran an editorial, Mayor Bloomberg’s Opportunity, (Published: November 9, 2008), which pleadingly asks Mr. Bloomberg not to spend so much of his personal wealth on his reelection campaign that will make the election unfair. The Times’ pleading request (“Mr. Bloomberg owes New Yorkers one more thing that will even further enhance their choices next September.”) came after Bloomberg had signed the term limits extension that the Times advocated the City Council should pass for him. The Times’ editorial page is even more responsible for the bill’s enactment; after their first editorial favoring a lifting of term limits they augmented their efforts to influence the City Council vote with a second editorial the week of the City Council vote, also advocating the bill’s passage. (See: Editorial: Term Limits and the Council, Published: October 22, 2008.)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: “Unseemly Wheeling and Dealing” on Term Limits

When the Times ran the second editorial endorsing a term limits extension for Bloomberg, they realized they were already playing catch-up because, by then, building on the strength of the Times and other major paper endorsements (apparently bargained for by Bloomberg before any public discussion or debate of the issue), Bloomberg had made a deal with fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder to effectively have the extended term limits apply only to Bloomberg. This possibility having not been foreseen, the Times had to backtrack and innoculate itself retroactively by figuring out how to take a stand against such a bad governance practice. In the end, already along for the ride, they effectively condoned the result of questionable “unseemly wheeling and dealing” by the Mayor.

The Times original editorial (Editorial: The Limits of Term Limits, Published: September 30, 2008) espoused that the City Council should “abolish term limits altogether” but the editorial led, in its first paragraph, with an echo of Bloomberg’s recent opportunistic argument that his desired third term is important because of his ability to lead during a financial crisis:

The law is particularly unappealing now because it is structured in a way that
would deny New Yorkers — at a time when the city’s economy is under great stress — the right to decide for themselves whether an effective and popular mayor should stay in office.
The Times second editorial endeavored to cope with the Lauder, deal reemphasizing that it advocated total abolition of term limits:

There has been some unseemly wheeling and dealing on both sides leading up to this vote, including an arrangement between Mr. Bloomberg and Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir who has been a longtime proponent of term limits and helped underwrite the 1993 referendum that first put term limits on the books.

In exchange for Mr. Lauder’s support for a one-term extension, Mr. Bloomberg has promised him a seat on a charter commission that — if the Council votes to extend the limits — would revisit the issue in 2010, and, quite possibly, call for another referendum. If it comes to that, we would recommend that the commission call for abolishing term limits altogether.
Forethought Missing: Unconsidered Question of Bloomberg’s Expertise to Lead in a Financial Crisis

If the Times editorial page can be excused for giving this after-the-fact reprimand to the Mayor because they failed to foresee his “wheeling and dealing” with Ronald Lauder, there are enough concerns that the Times should clearly have given thought to beforehand and didn’t. We have commented before that the Times editorial page endorsement of the notion, (expressed above), that Bloomberg has special qualifications to lead in a financial crisis, preceded any news analysis as to whether this is true. A Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by a member of that publication’s editorial board tackled the subject before the term limits vote to conclude that Bloomberg isn’t well qualified. We testified beforehand and have supplied two Noticing New York pieces also concluding that as a crisis-insider Bloomberg is unsuited to the role. To date, the Times had not provided a regular news analysis on this subject. It has been left to Times “About New York” columnist Jim Dwyer and Daily News sports (and sometimes political) columnist Mike Lupica to provide analysis agreeing with us. Both columnists keyed in on Charles Bagli’s recent story about out-of-control stadium deal expenses which appeared after the City Council acted though the story’s revelations should not have been a surprise.

(For the stories referred to in the paragraph above see: The Wall Street Journal’s New York Will Survive Without Bloomberg: The mayor never bothered to prepare the city for any lean years, by Jason L. Riley, October 16, 2008, Thursday, October 23, 2008, Bloomberg Qualified Financial Crisis Leader? He Can Learn Says Schumer!Saturday, October 25, 2008 More Discredit of Bloomberg as Qualified Financial Crisis Leader, For Sports Teams, Mayors Play Ball at the City’s Expense, by Jim Dwyer, November 7, 2008, Yankees' and Mets' new stadiums are NYC's real tax burden, by Mike Lupica, Sunday, November 9th 2008, As Stadiums Rise, So Do Costs to Taxpayers, by Charles V. Bagli, November 4, 2008)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Wealth-tilted Playing Field

Now that the term limits extension bill has been passed, the Times belatedly notes in its latest editorial that there have already been “two elections in which he (Bloomberg) campaigned with more than $150 million of his own money.” Along with their after-the-fact pleading that the Mayor limit his campaign spending, the Times harkens back to their own early `lamenting’ (their word) of Bloomberg’s records of spending heavily:

Ever since Mr. Bloomberg began running for mayor in 2001, we have lamented the way he used his oversized checkbook to get his message across. Back then, at least, he was an unknown. Some of the $75 million that Mr. Bloomberg spent in 2001 helped him introduce himself to most New Yorkers.
They acknowledge a titling of the field: “The mayor has a constitutional right to spend his own money, of course. But he does more than tilt the field.”

There are those of us who ahead of time thought that these exact same concerns were good reasons to embrace term limits and testified so when we testified before the City Council about all the reasons it would be unfair and improper to afford the Mayor a special third term. We also testified that the Mayor tilted the playing field still further by using surprise to change term limits on his own timetable. (See: Tuesday, October 21, 2008, Time to Report on the Best City Council Hearing Testimony.)

In the same vein, the Times acknowledges that Bloomberg’s incumbency further tilts an unfairly tilted field about which they are concerned:

Mr. Bloomberg is an established political name, not only in New York City but in most of the country. He is an incumbent, which gives him a head start since he will be heavily covered by news organizations.
Illusory Public “Choice”?

In the very next sentence they seem to indicate that the lack of fairness this poses also deprives the public of the very “choice” which the Mayor argued was the reason he (as opposed to Mayors before or after) should have the special privilege of a third term:

But most fundamentally, because his main argument is that he is giving voters more choice by running once more, that choice should be as fair as possible.
Times’ Viewpoint: “Fairness” vs. Merely Curbing “Public Expense”

That just-mentioned sentence is the editorial’s most direct mention of `fairness.’ The editorial preoccupies itself with another concern: expense. You almost get the feeling that if fairness could not be addressed, the Times would be satisfied if public expense could be limited. The editorial notes that Bloomberg’s spending could trigger a great deal of extra public expense. The editorial asks that, though he would not be accessing public funds that would trigger campaign spending limits, the Mayor should voluntarily comply with those limits. They note what will happen if he does not.

If the mayor does not respect the limits, he will trigger what is called the Daddy Warbucks provision, which makes the whole election more expensive for everyone. When one candidate spends unlimited private resources, the other candidates no longer have limits on their own campaign spending. And the matching funds, provided by the public, increase substantially as well.
Sticking with Fairness; Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Unfair Use of Charities

Sticking with the subject of fairness, the Times editorial page has some more catching up to do. The Mayor’s wealth is not only a problem when it comes to regulated campaign spending. We have written about how the Mayor’s wealth is a problem when it comes to unregulated manipulation of charities for political gain. The same concerns were written about in the news pages of the Times after the Times editorial page had made up its mind to support the Mayor’s bid to be unleashed for a third term. (See: Monday, October 20, 2008, “Charity?” We Begin to Groan.)

We first started commenting warily about the Mayor’s use of charities when we did some partial uncloaking of his charitable money maneuvering, observing how he was congratulating himself with an award to the New York City Waterfalls. The Waterfalls was a project he had personally adopted as his own in multiple ways. (See: Wednesday, October 15, 2008, Self-Congratulation “Befalls” a Man Who Would Know No Limits.) Lately, there is more news of other instances involving this strange admixture of hidden Bloomberg charity funds and Bloombergian self-congratulations; see the latest New York Times story: Some Award Winners Share Trait: Bloomberg’s Charity, by Michael Barbaro.

A City Benefitted by Mayor Who Doesn’t “Owe?” Check Your Assumptions

Getting back to the Times’ new editorial on campaign spending; the editorial observes (with seeming endorsement) that, though it has been unfettered, Bloomberg has an argument for spending his personal wealth on his own campaigns. His argument is that by doing so he is not, like other politicians, in the pocket of campaign contributors:

Mr. Bloomberg has often argued that by using his own money, he does not owe anybody anything. . . . He could still use his own money — just not as much of it, certainly not the $100 million that some inside City Hall have predicted he could spend next year.
Bloomberg may argue that he has managed to avoid owing anybody anything but to give credit for this would be to presuppose that public benefit flows from the situation. It is not at all apparent that it does. What about those developers `routinely outflanking’ the public interest mentioned previously? Clyde Haberman has commented that the “Bloomberg administration . . has yet to meet a developer to which it wishes to say no.” What if we had a different mayor who was in fact taking campaign funds from the real estate industry with frank acknowledgment? Would capitulations to the industry’s wishes be happening any less fast or furiously than now? It is hard to believe that such could be the case.

We do not know exactly what makes a wealthy man like Bloomberg tick. He may be wealthier beyond any need to be richer. He can’t eat any better and he is at that “What can you buy that you can't already afford?” stage (See: Tuesday, November 4, 2008, Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown). The Mayor’s attraction to power is out in the open, given that he was recently willing to pay such a high price to stay in power. Some explanation is likely to be found in the way funds flow through the Mayor’s charities. The Mayor may claim by not taking campaign funds he owes nobody anything. But we have observed that the way he uses charities to accept and intermingle funds from developers points to quid pro quo obligations. It presents situations that are a challenge to distinguish from old-fashioned kickback behavior.

The Wrong-ordered Approach to Ordering up Good Behavior from a Mayor

The moral? There is a proper order for things. On three separate post-term-limit-extension-endorsement occasions the Times editorial page has already pleaded for better mayoral behavior; protecting landmarks from developers, campaign spending and finally with respect to “unseemly wheeling and dealing” on term limits itself. In addition, the Times editorial page has a lot more after-the-fact catch-up to do in terms of observing and demanding other better behavior from the Mayor; not abusing charities and living up to the rigors of fiscal discipline included. In the proper order of things, it is worth taking time to think about important decisions before someone wants you to rush them through. If you want better behavior from a mayor or politician, you have a better chance asking for it before rather than after endorsing a blank check for another four years. Afterwards, you are left to pleadingly hope.

If you engage in the bad behavior of doing things in the wrong order, don’t expect that you can order up good behavior from the Mayor afterwards.

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