Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Coming to Terms With Mistakes

We think that Michael R. Bloomberg’s announcement that he will pursue a third term mayoral term is bad news.

Noticing New York has some fairly nuanced views on the subject of term limits for city officials, more nuanced than the rationales ginned up in today’s New York Times editorial advocating that the way be cleared for a third consecutive Bloomberg term: Editorial: The Limits of Term Limits.

Last-minute and Self-serving

We are neither entirely for nor against term limits. Mostly we are against them, but we are absolutely opposed to their elimination in the last-minute and self-serving manner being proposed by Bloomberg. The game of 52 Card Pick-up Bloomberg is creating gives him an unfair advantage. (Phoning in, we expressed this sentiment on the Brian Lehrer show September 9, 2008: the “Extending Term Limits” segment 12:30 minutes in.) For a good primer on the subject of term limits I recommend, for its lucidity, a piece (among other valuable ones he has written) by former City Councilman (and Parks Commissioner) Henry Stern of New York Civic: Pols Chide Mayor for Toying With Them On Term Limits By Discussing the Possibility Of Reversing Two Referenda.

Leadership and Crisis

We are not swept up in the rally-around-and-keep-our-current-leader-in-a-time-of-unfolding-crisis campaign. The premise was rejected when it was suggested that Giuliani be specially held over in office after 9/11. We similarly reject that the Bloomberg, who took office when Giuliani cleared the way, should be kept because of the Wall Street crisis. Giuliani, who did not foresee the likelihood of another attack on the World Trade Center, built his emergency commend center in the Trade Center where it was destroyed in the second attack. Bloomberg did not foresee the current foreseeable Wall Street crisis. As a Wall Street insider he is likely less fit, rather than more, to have perspective on the unfolding events.

We believe that there should be reasoned discussion and evaluation about how New York nurtures, tends and balances the economics of its business mix. It may well be, for instance, that the city should convert much of its old industrial space to new uses. Nevertheless, this administration has had an unhealthy disregard for those who previously expressed wariness about putting too many eggs in the Wall Street basket. Today the New York Times reports that New York is going to seek $60 million in federal aid to retrain the workers now losing jobs because of the financial crisis (Seeking Federal Grants to Save Jobs in Danger, by Patrick McGeehan).

Coming to Terms with Mistakes

The most pronounced downside of a Bloomberg third term involves a need to acknowledge and correct mistakes. Noticing New York believes that Bloomberg successes, mostly improvements in administrative efficiency, have materialized short term, while failures which have yet to show up and come to roost will be longer term. The new computer-assisted 311 system is a success, but the countless capitulations to real estate developers that represent bad urban planning will present lasting problems; their effects will not be seen until projects finish construction.

Here is a press conference question for Mayor Bloomberg: Does he acknowledge any mistakes and, if so, is he willing to correct them?

Theories of Decision-making and Mistakes

There are different theories about decision-making and mistakes in government. I once was given what I consider some very good advice. The advice came from the departing counsel when I was taking over responsibility for the legal department at the state finance authorities. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to make an immediate decision about anything,” he advised. Most things can wait and most decisions that people try to rush through on an accelerated basis are going to be problematic. We were working in a real estate development environment. You may groan to think that I am the consummate bureaucrat when I say that this advice proved extremely valuable and that I was never loath to pass it on. True, there are also times when deciding quickly is important. Knowing the difference is an art.

There is another philosophy of decision-making to which I suspect Bloomberg subscribes. It is more prevalent in the less bureaucratic business world: “Better a bad decision than no decision at all.”

The question is, when you have made a bad decision, what do you do about it?

John McCain is now famous for writing about his “decisions” in his 2002 book "Worth the Fighting For."

"I make them quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can . . . . Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.”

(See: Palin and McCain’s Shotgun Marriage, by Frank Rich, September 6, 2008 and Conservative Ire Pushed McCain From Lieberman, By Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael Cooper, August 30, 2008.)

Should we have to live with the mistakes produced by badly made decisions? No matter what?

The Uncorrected Mistake of Atlantic Yards

Atlantic Yards is probably Bloomberg’s supreme mistake. I was not the only one to criticize Atlantic Yards when I phoned in to the Brian Lehrer show during the term limits discussion on September 9th. Atlantic Yards is a spectacular example of a decision that was rushed through with improperly forced haste and it is a spectacular example of just how bad the consequences of such thoughtless haste can be.

The Bloomberg administration has implicitly acknowledged the ignominy of its failure with respect to Atlantic Yards. It did so in the way it handled the departure of Deputy Mayor for Development Daniel Doctoroff (see: Atlantic Yards As Political Hot Potato.)

However disgraceful all its lapses, the Bloomberg administration has done nothing to correct the misreckoned Atlantic Yards course it is on. Correction could be made with less difficulty than continuing through the bog in which the city is now steeped. It would be relatively easy to do what is needed which is to take the project back to the drawing board and bid it out to multiple developers. (Yes, this time the megaproject, currently 17 separate building sites, should actually be bid out.) The project is adrift, amorphously ill-defined and the developer repeatedly transgresses with unacceptable behavior that should long ago have disqualified the developer from Bloomberg’s ongoing accommodation and indulgence.

Limits: Those Deserved and Not

If term limits should ever be repealed, they should not be repealed in the last-minute and self-serving manner Bloomberg proposes. That said, term limits should certainly not be repealed to retain in office a mayor who has not come to terms with and does not offer limit to the obvious mistakes he has already made.

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