BY NATALIA KOZIKOWSKA
Earlier this week, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James sat down with the Queens Tribune staff, where she discussed a number of issues relevant to Queens residents and offered her feedback on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days in office.
James began the interview by describing the way she perceives herself as the City’s Public Advocate, expanding on her role as a checks and balances to de Blasio.
“I see myself as a thorn in the side of the Mayor,” she said. “Even though the Mayor and I are part of the same party, I have criticized Mayor de Blasio.”
The Public Advocate went on to highlight some issues she feels the Mayor has not addressed correctly or in a timely fashion, touching upon affordable housing, the City’s poor snowstorm response and the mishandling of school co-locations.
She also criticized de Blasio, a former Public Advocate himself, for not allocating her office the proper funds that she believes she needs to operate most effectively. She noted that her $2.2 million budget is significantly less than former Public Advocates Mark Green, whose offices were allocated $8 million, and Betsy Gotbaum, whose offices were allocated $5-6 million.
“For a Citywide office, that’s unacceptable. The charter mandates that we be treated as a Citywide office and unfortunately, we’re not being treated the same,” she said. “Borough Presidents have a larger budget than we do and I believe this is a violation of the charter.”
Despite her many criticisms, James said that she would give de Blasio an overall letter grade of B + for his performance during his first 100 days in office. She touted the Mayor’s progress in initiatives like universal pre-kindergarten, the advantage programs for the homeless and Stop and Frisk reform. But, while explaining why she docked de Blasio a few points, James playfully took a jab at the Mayor’s reputation for tardiness.
While discussing issues relevant to Queens, James shared her opinions regarding embattled Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who has been under fire by media and elected officials alike for his $391,994 annual salary and $140,000 in office renovations.
“Mr. Galante should resign. I know it’s unlikely that he will walk away from $2 million [severance pay], but right now, it’s a distraction,” she said. “If he’s really concerned about the state of the library, then he should walk away. He should resign for the sake of the Borough.”
James also took the time to discuss her controversial lawsuit against the City, which seeks to block the 36 charter school co-locations approved by de Blasio and the Dept. of Education earlier this year.
“I’ve supported charter school co-locations while in the Council, but the difference there was that the stakeholders came to the table and worked out the sharing of space with libraries and cafeterias,” she said. “The difference with these co-locations is that all the voices of the parents have not been heard, and my litigation basically says that they should be given more weight in the process.”
The Public Advocate similarly noted that many of the City’s approved co-location plans did not take classroom size and building capacity into account. She cited the Richmond Hill High School co-location proposal as a prime example of such an instance.
“The school has 22 trailers all filled with children, mostly international children,” she said. “This is a big school that is being considered for a co-location and it’s unacceptable. They didn’t do a census and didn’t take into account the children who are being taught in trailers.”
James also spoke to another hot-button issue in the Borough and the City – workers’ rights and workers’ compensation. Citing two recent rallies, the Borough’s airport workers protest for better pay and the United Parcel Service drivers’ protest against the termination of 250 employees, James said she feels that middle-class Americans are struggling to make ends meet.
“Middle class families are fighting for survival,” she said. “We need to come down hard on the employers that are treating their workers unfairly and unjustly.”
She vowed that, in the case of UPS, which receives significant funding from the City and has refused to sit down with James, disciplinary measures will be taken to ensure to that workers are treated fairly – even if it means cutting the cord on some of the City’s crucial funding.
Reach Natalia Kozikowska at (718)357-7400 Ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @nkozikowska.