Friday, October 04, 2013


Mayor Bloomberg: Public Servant -- Or Volunteer?

Originally published in the New York Post, 10/4/13

Whether it’s Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota, one thing is guaranteed about New York’s next mayor: From Day One, before any budget is submitted or union contract signed, taxpayers will be spending more on the occupant of City Hall.
At least $900,000 more over 2014-2018, in fact. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The sum represents the $225,000 annual salary the city officially pays its chief executive — but hasn’t actually disbursed in a dozen years.
Because Michael Bloomberg’s hard work over the years brought him great wealth — and, as he declared during his 2001 run for office, that wealth made him immune from corruption that often seduces elected officials — he took the nominal sum of $1 to serve as mayor.
That’s been something of a good bargain for all concerned. The city saved nearly $3 million in salary — even as Bloomberg’s personal net worth soared from $5 billion in 2001 to an estimated $27 billion this year.
And the actual savings to the city are likely even more considering Bloomberg lives in his Upper East Side apartment rather than the traditional mayoral home of Gracie Mansion, which he only used for special events. De Blasio or Lhota will most likely move into Gracie.
Yet there’s also a slight downside in not paying the full salary.
Elected officials are supposed to be public servants, meaning they work for the public — the people of a city, district, state, whatever. Conversely, someone paid basically nothing is a volunteer. And Mayor Bloom­berg has occasionally acted thus.
Yes, he leaves an impressive record on public safety, education, etc. Yet there’s always been a sense that he rarely felt that he was working for the people. Rather, Bloomberg exuded an air of noblesse oblige — he felt a certain responsibility to lead, but not necessarily to listen.
And woe to any who might challenge that.
Just last week, an irritated mayor threatened to cancel press conferences because the reporters gathered didn’t want to ask enough (in his view) questions on his preferred topic (air quality).
The threat doesn’t mean much, given how little time Bloomberg has left in office. But it brings to mind the dismissive “King Mike” who occasionally popped up over three terms.
That individual is immune to a charge that works for virtually every other office-holder: The public complaint (either directly or through the press), You work for us; our taxes pay your salary!
No other elected official can dismiss that basic fact of life. Bloomberg can.
For example, not until the snow disaster of Christmas 2010 did the mayor admit that the public had any right to access to his weekend schedule when he (presumably) jetted off to Bermuda.
Or, last year, the mayor initially dug in his heels when news broke that he’d been flying his private helicopter off the E. 34th Street helipad on the weekends — a practice officially banned for a decade.
Or, taking it full circle, after he declared at a 2009 press conference that the economy had turned around, the mayor snapped when asked if that undermined the stated reason for term limits having been extended the year before — a then-cratering economy. Bloomberg called the reporter a “disgrace” for asking the question.
In each case, the mayor seemed personally offended that the public — or its stand-in, a questioning press — would dare question his actions, decisions or motives.
Yes, members of the Fourth Estate occasionally ask dumb questions. But a free and open press is key to keeping elected officials accountable.
That’s something that Bloomberg’s successor — like any other elected official — will have to deal with as well. The one downside though is, well, yes, it’s going to cost New York taxpayers more than it has recently.
A fair trade-off, though, for the people to be able to say — after a dozen years: We’re the boss; you, Your Honor, work for us.

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