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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pork doesn’t stick to Teflon Mike

I’m reasonably good at keeping up with the news, so I'm puzzled that I seem to have missed this item, reported by Grace Rauh of the now-defunct NY Sun on Sept. 25th: “The mayor disclosed in May that he had been giving money to council members through a process somewhat similar to the one used on the other side of City Hall…” (emphasis added) Where was it reported, I wonder?

This past April, a brouhaha erupted over the at best opaque and sometimes downright fraudulent disbursement of member item funds by the City Council. The scandal was widely reported: by the Post and Daily News with their characteristically catchy headiness (“Let’s Butcher the Pork”; “Quinn Porks a Wallop”), and by the NY Times with in-depth articles discussing the origins and political necessity of the Council’s discretionary fund.

The Times noted that the mayor’s “near lock on power” as a result of the 1989 Charter revision left lawmakers “with few ways to wield influence, affect life in their communities or make a name for themselves.” However, the Mayor doesn’t quite have complete control (yet!): he still needs the Council to pass his budget. To smooth the way, he gives the Speaker a generous allowance ($360 million; up from about $15 million two decades ago) to distribute among her colleagues as she sees fit. The problem for Quinn was not that that this clientage system worthy of a banana republic is the “governmental lubricant” of the greatest city in the greatest country in the world; rather, it was that additional funds were held in secret accounts with odd names that should have tipped off the Mayor’s budget sleuths.

One would think the crack reporters at the NY Times would have sniffed out the story-within-a-story: while the Mayor curries favor for his budget by allowing the Speaker to dole out funds for member items, he personally hands out a few extra million on the side to his own special friends. Though the Daily News did mention the practice in a brief editorial, neither the NY Times nor the Post evidently believed it would interest readers.

And who were the beneficiaries of Bloomberg’s largesse? They include assorted Republicans, of course, but the largest single beneficiary (at $5.66 million) has been Simcha Felder—yes, the very same guy who is now running the Council committee considering the term limits bill. And—in case you still believe the cant about Bloomberg’s wealth allowing him to float above politics-as-usual-- consider this: the Mayor gave out the most money ($5.6 million) the year he was running for re-election. This is not his own money, of course—that would be bribery. But he can do that with our own money and we are silent?

Back in June, after some posturing about resisting the Mayor’s cuts to education by voting “no” on the budget, the Council gave up $129 million from its discretionary fund to keep our schools from sinking further into poverty. That this step, which robbed worthy community projects of much-needed funds without addressing the chronic underfunding of our public schools, should be hailed as a victory is a testament to the poverty of our political spirit. No one even asked the Mayor to chip in his own $20 million discretionary fund.

--Paola de Kock

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