Mayor Bloomberg's Legacy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Michael Bloomberg's extraordinary 12-year term as mayor of New york has just ended. This is an opportune time to review the billionaire mayor's mixed-bag legacy.
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Michael Bloomberg's extraordinary 12-year term as mayor of New york has just ended. This is an opportune time to review the billionaire mayor's mixed-bag legacy -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For the sake of civility, let's start with the good.

My only government job began with Bloomberg's first term, in January 2002. Lower Manhattan's newly elected City Council Member Alan Gerson asked me to set aside my media work to serve as the policy director for his newly-commissioned Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment. I also advised the council member on budgetary issues, and in reviewing the new mayor's unexpected plan to immediately raise real estate taxes by 18 percent.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks only months earlier, New York City's finances had headed into dire straits. Simultaneous to Bush-Cheney's infamous tax cuts for the rich -- and exploding deficits -- a mayor who had come to power on the Republican ticket had initiated the largest city tax increase in modern history. Our City Council voted 41 to 6 to raise billions of dollars to retain essential city services. Mayor Bloomberg was a phenomenal fiscal manager, and as a result, Mayor Bill de Blasio will inherit a $2 billion budget surplus this year.

Raising taxes as a Republican took courage and leadership, qualities that Mayor Bloomberg had plenty of. After treating one of the world's most profitable private media companies, then financing 100 percent of his own lavish mayoral campaigns, makes for an unusually independent -- and arrogant -- chief executive. Enlightened despotism has its benefits when the wealthiest king of New York in history (with a net worth estimated at $27 billion) is also intelligent, capable, and well-intentioned.

It also has its drawbacks, when that same king is imperious, arrogant, disregards criticism, and is out of touch with the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. But more on this when I get to the bad and ugly.

Bloomberg's gutsy public interest initiatives were not limited to being a responsible, efficient manager of New York's budget. At a time when the National Rifle Association's intimidating firepower is so overwhelming that some states have eased gun laws in response to the Newton massacre of 20 school children, Bloomberg's has spent millions of his own money, and used his bully pulpit, to become the nation's leading unpaid advocate for gun control.

True political independence has also meant a significant diminishment in political cronyism and corruption, a form of governance that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani adeptly practiced.

My typically progressive brother, who has run a tiny low-income real estate management company for three decades, adores Bloomberg. City agencies, he says, have never been more reliable and honest. During the Giuliani and Koch years, he explains, much depended upon "who you know," and which politically-connected lobbyists and lawyers you hired. Under Bloomberg, "who you know" was replaced by what you proposed -- and its benefits to the city and working (though not poor) citizens needing affordable housing.

In a similar vein, creating the 311 information network was a huge public service benefit to New Yorkers who had become accustomed to city offices not answering their phone calls. Then there was the mayor's audacious indoor smoking ban. Bloomberg was widely vilified for pushing it. Critics swore that many restaurants, bars and nightclubs would be bankrupted. The opposite happened. People like me, allergic to tobacco smoke and wary of second-hand smoke for my infant children, could suddenly go out again. New York's restaurants and commercial real estate has never been stronger.

Like many, I also supported Bloomberg's successful push for bike lanes, labeling of trans-fat prepared foods, and his valiant attempt to ban super-sized drinks loaded with high-fructose, genetically modified corn syrup.

But the limitation of King Bloomberg the Good's public health initiatives provides a useful springboard into the realm of the King Bloomberg the Bad. The mayor's sense of public health was a billionaire despot's idea of new laws, as opposed to working to fi what's broken. Such as poverty and homelessness.

Despite record prosperity, New York City, under Mayor Bloomberg, has the highest number of homeless residents since the Great Depression. About 22,000 of them are children. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported New York to be the most economically unequal major city in the United States.

It is no surprise that many New Yorkers feel that Mayor Bloomberg lack empathy, or understanding, for poor people. Or even average income New Yorkers, and the public amenities that make our city live-able.

I was disappointed when Mayor Bloomberg decided to award a private contract to Snapple to place expensive modern vending machines in the city's playgrounds and public schools. A public health-obsessed mayor not blinded by privatization as the cure to society's needs would have put filtered New York-quality water dispensers with paper cups in every school, and park, in New York. Instead, Bloomberg opted for the private beverage contractor who offered to kick back the most money to the treasury -- a short-sighted business decision when one considers both the public health and long-term cost benefits of water over sugared drinks, as well as the enormous public cost of transporting and disposing of hundreds of millions of plastic bottles and cans.

Then there are the public toilets, a pet grievance of many public space loving New Yorkers. I have never seen a modern city in any country in the world with as filthy and horribly maintained public toilets as New York City. After Bloomberg's Parks Department first unveiled its $30 million plan to renovate Washington Square Park, I surveyed hundreds of park users, and found that more than 85 percent wanted the city to prioritize the upgrading of the park's filthy bathrooms, which are inaccessible to the disabled and parents with babies, and generally lack toilet paper or soap. The focus of the city's plan, to radically redesign the park, put high gates and fences around it, shrink the central plaza, bring the plaza to street level, forbid walking on the grass, require permits to play acoustic music, and and move the historic fountain to align with the arch, were goals the public never shared with its imperious mayor or parks commissioner.

Yet now, nine years after revealing its plans, everything in the park has been redesigned, and the renovated bathrooms are still waiting to open. Countless visitors have avoided those restrooms, and thousands of parents have, like me, raised their children around the Washington Square Park playgrounds, without once being able to change a diaper in the restrooms. Meanwhile a decades-old plan to create public pay toilets has been mothballed for years, because New York's billionaire mayor, whose mansions and expensive restaurants afford him access to the finest bathrooms in the land, does not think decent toilets are an amenity that the city needs to provide to the public.

The struggle to keep Washington Square Park publicly funded and accessible for music and protest without permits brought me face to face with the imperious power that Mayor Bloomberg believed be was entitled to. I was the lead plaintiff in two community lawsuits against the Mayor Bloomberg and the City. The lawsuits focussed on city's inadequate and false representations to our local community board about the extent to which the Parks Department's planned redesign would transform the unique public character of the park, which has been the international center of folk music and the antiwar movement.

We won our first argument in State Court, when Judge Emily Jane Goodman concluded:

"on the basis of this record, that essential aspects of the Parks Department's plans for the fountain and the fountain plaza, which could have a substantial impact on the historic role of Washington Square Park, were not adequately revealed to Community Board 2 or the Landmarks Commission, precluding the exercise of their roles in the oversight process..."

Instead of returning to Greenwich Village's Community Board 2 with a truthful description of its plans, the Bloomberg administration appealed the ruling to a state's appellate court. Mayor Bloomberg's legal argument was that the Parks Department had no obligation to inform the city's duly-appointed Community Boards of anything -- or even to tell them the truth! The Bloomberg administration claimed that the community board's role was merely advisory, any disclosure of city plans was a governmental courtesy -- not an obligation.

Although a five-member appellate court overruled Goodman's decision by mysteriously disagreeing with her findings of fact, this higher court created also slapped down the Bloomberg Administration's move to disempower the legal standing of its community board system, ruling, in Greenberg vs. the City of New york, that, "Initially, we reject the city's threshold argument that the Parks Department was not legally required to submit the renovation plan to Community Board 2 for review."

It is hard to imagine that Greenwich Villagers would need to take our mayor to court to win a precedent-setting ruling that the City Charter requires community board reviews for major projects, but that's what happened. It is also hard to imagine that a mayor of any city would want to curb the most successful public musical and political gathering space in the world, but this is exactly what Bloomberg's Parks Department fought to achieve in Washington Square Park.

No public music, or political gatherings, without permits, community be damned, and to hell with history. In claiming that the historic use of the park for First Amendment protected expression was about to be curtailed, our second lawsuit forced the city to revisit its plans and express assurances that this would not happen. Judge Madden's ruling made sure that the city would keep Washington Square Park free, She wrote:

"This court presumes that the Parks Department's clear and unambiguous representations, both in the E.A.S. and in this proceeding, that the adjacent lawn areas are to be used as grassy extensions of the fountain plaza and will be open and accessible for political protest and artistic expression are true, and that both the Parks Department and the City will be bound by these representations in the future."

Madden continued: "Prohibiting access to the lawn areas would be directly contrary to the Parks Department's representations in the E.A.S. and to this court that the lawns will be 'open.'"

Controlling public assembly, protest, and even movement, to "make us safer" was the impetus behind the Bloomberg Administration's radical redesign of Washington Square Park, and it brings us to the ugly side of King Bloomberg's reign.

Since Bloomberg's term began, the number of people stopped and interrogated by the New York Police Department ("NYPD") rose 600 percent. In 2011, the NYPD stopped people 685,724 times. About 87 percent of these people were black or Latino, and fewer that 10 percent of these stops resulted in arrests.

Most of these arrests were for "public displays of marijuana," typically police ordering young minorities to empty their pockets, then, in Orwellian style, arresting them for publicly displaying marijuana. Like the record number of arrests each year for "public smoking" under Bloomberg, these marijuana offenses are merely misdemeanors by state law, intended for citation and release upon furnish proper identification. But because of an executive order began under Giuliani and greatly expanded under Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD is now required to check offenders' fingerprints through an Albany database to confirm their identification. This necessitates handcuffing anyone with marijuana (an offense that legally should be treated like a speeding ticket), bringing them to an overcrowded holding cell. Often overnight, without ever seeing a lawyer or access to a phone to call families or employers, and then releasing them at some point during the following day.

This was the reality of Mayor Bloomberg's legally questionable stop and frisk policy, and his unannounced, unpopular escalation of New York's war on marijuana. It has caused hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly poor and dark-skinned, to endure unnecessary suffering, diminished the popularity of the NYPD, and cost the city untold millions of dollars.

When it came to squelching political dissent, King Bloomberg the Ugly decided to use these same tools to avoid "embarrassment" when the Republican National Convention arrived in New York in August 2004. Last week, just in time for Bloomberg's retirement, the City announced that it had "resolved," or settled, the lawsuits of hundreds of the more than 1,800 people who had been arrested during protests of the RNC Convention, and placed in toxic holding cells that came to be known as Guantanamo on the Hudson."

Preventive detention, the jailing of citizens to "prevent" them from crimes, is illegal and unconstitutional in the United States. Yet under Mayor Bloomberg's supervision, in one of the most progressive major cities in the world, the NYPD's 1,800 arrests around the 2004 RNC protests amounted to the largest use of preventive detention of political protesters in more than 230 years on United States history.

Many of those arrested were caught in large orange nets that police indiscriminately tossed over sidewalk "holding pens" for protesters. For the imaginary crime of illegally protesting or blocking traffic or defying nonexistent police orders to disperse, more than 1,800 people were handcuffed and bussed to an abandoned, filthy city-owned pier on the West Side highway. They were denied phone calls, medications, food, or even a mat to sit on the oil and chemical covered ground. Many were held in this condition for more than 24 hours, despite court orders to release them. This heavy-handed, illegal crackdown on peaceful protest insured that they would not return to exercise their First Amendment rights and protest the RNC, and would not embarrass Mayor Bloomberg, and his vision of a Republican-welcoming city.

Judges soon found that many had been unlawfully arrested and ordered trumped up charges dropped. Video evidence demonstrated that the NYPD lies about the arrests of hundreds of others.

The city paid out millions to settle, but Mayor Bloomberg commended the police department's performance.

As for the treatment of the peaceful protesters, the mayor remarked, "It's not supposed to be Club Med."

To which a proper New Yorker's response might be: "and you were not supposed to disregard our constitutional rights."

For better, and for worse, Michael Bloomberg's legacy will be a billionaire mayor who governed New York City as though he were its king.

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