Power Politics: Bloomberg Unchecked

This record makes it hard to believe that Bloomberg would sit on the sidelines and let the City Council lead the way on term limits, probably the most significant decision of his term.
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From the beginning, Mayor Bloomberg has depicted last year's decision to loosen term limits as the City Council's idea. When in the late summer of 2008 he first publicly floated a trial balloon about seeking a third term, he did it by saying he'd have to "seriously think about" running if the Council decided to upend the two-term constraint. When he formally threw his weight behind the revision last October, he said he'd run again "should the City Council vote to amend term limits." And earlier this year—just before he angrily called a reporter a "disgrace" for daring to ask about the rationale behind the extension—the mayor said: "The rationale for extending term limits is that the City Council passed it."

The facts that the Council had considered changing term limits for years only to be shot down by the mayor, that the city's elite rallied around the extension last year only because it bore the mayor's imprimatur, that the newspaper editorial pages backed the move after their owners dined with Hizzoner, that the mayor's people called in nonprofits they'd supported to testify in favor of the law, that the mayor's law department weighed in in favor of the Council having the right to reverse two referenda—those were mere details, according to this telling.

The Council was driving; Mike just grabbed hold of the bumper.

What's especially funny about that notion is that in his two terms as mayor, Bloomberg hasn't exactly been deferential to the city's legislature.

As City Limits reported in April, Bloomberg has vetoed 52 bills during his mayoralty. That appears to be far more than any recent mayor. The Daily News reported in 2001 that in the first seven years of his mayoralty, Rudy Giuliani vetoed 28 bills. The pace of vetoes accelerated in Rudy's last year, but by mid-2001 The New York Times was reporting that the City Council "has overridden roughly two dozen mayoral vetoes in the Giuliani years, considerably more than during either the Dinkins or Koch administrations."

Bloomberg vetoed more frequently in his first term, when he and then-Speaker Gifford Miller had a contentious relationship, than in his second, when he and Speaker Christine Quinn were often allies.

A few highlights: In 2002, Bloomberg vetoed a measure that barred the city from giving grants or contracts to predatory lenders. The following year, he vetoed a bill to tighten restrictions on lead paint. In 2004, the veto pen was used on a measure requiring more reporting of school violence. A 2006 bill to require schools to provide broader translation services for parents to talk to teachers? Untersagt! (That's German for "vetoed," I think). When the Council sought to ban aluminum bats in 2007, Bloomberg threw a four-seam veto. And last year the mayor tried to kill a bill "prohibiting landlords to discriminate against tenants based on lawful source of income."

The Council has overridden Bloomberg at least 49 times. But the fact that most vetoes were overridden doesn't capture how many bills never saw the light of day because their support was shy of a veto-proof majority. Nor do they reflect legislative dance steps like last year's move by the Council to split an e-waste bill into two parts so the mayor could sign one containing aspects he liked and veto the other, which encompassed policies he opposed.

And while it's a mayor's right to veto things and a Council's right to override, Bloomberg has gone to court to erode the second right. In 2006, the state's highest court ruled that, even if his veto is overridden, Bloomberg can choose to not enforce a law that he thinks conflicts with the U.S. or state constitutions.

The Council doesn't even merit much attention from the mayor. According to Kevin Sheekey's appointment schedules (obtained via a Freedom of Information Request), Bloomberg's top political operative and deputy mayor for government affairs met with fewer than half the Council's members in 2008. He huddled with Speaker Christine Quinn or her staff 35 times last year, met four times with Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, three times with Simcha Felder (also of Brooklyn) and twice with Queens' Melinda Katz. He had single meetings with 15 members. Most of the meetings happened around the time of the term limits vote.

This record makes it hard to believe that Bloomberg would sit on the sidelines and let the City Council lead the way on probably the most significant decision of his term.

What's more, the record reflects an important trend during the Bloomberg mayoralty: Over the past eight years, the balance of power in City Hall has tipped decidedly to the west wing (where the mayor's offices are).

Whoever wins in November, the mayor's power could grow further in 2010. A charter revision commission might eliminate the public advocate and/or borough presidents—offices with little juice now, but who form at least a shadow of a counterbalance to the chief executive. Bloomberg has consistently cut the budget of the public advocate, the official whose top job is to watchdog the mayor.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Bloomberg's Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, would reverse the expansion of mayoral power if he prevails at the ballot box. Once you're in the big chair, things look different. Many were sure that Barack Obama would abandon the Bush administration's autocratic legal positions in national security cases. They've been disappointed. George Washington got the King of England off our backs, but apparently preferred the title "His High and Mightiness" to "Mr. President." Power does that sort of thing.

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