Most New Yorkers don’t know what the public advocate of New York City does, or who that person is in any given year.
The current public advocate of New York City, Leticia James, is only the second person of color to hold citywide office. She is now the attorney general-elect of New York State. The last public advocate, Bill de Blasio, ran for mayor and is now in his second term. Betsy Gotbaum was a two-term public advocate who brought a clear sense of good government values to the office, and turned down a third term after Mayor Bloomberg and Christine Quinn conspired to extend term limits. She is now the executive director of Citizens Union. Add Mark J. Green to the mix as the only other person to serve in this office, and you have a group of well-respected, progressive Democrats whose résumés are sure to impress.
But the office is pointless, other than to serve as an official title for politicians between jobs. Constitutionally, the office holder is second in line to the mayor—so there is an incredibly outside chance that public advocates will hit the political lottery and be catapulted into a position of immense power—but they’re more likely to get struck by lightning.
While there may be some solid policy papers written by public-advocate staff—lawsuits that act as a thorn in the side of powerful public- and private-sector folks; and fiery press conferences that lead to zip ties and nightly news spots—the office has no teeth. There is no reason the City Council speaker, or other elected officials, can’t take up the mantle of being an ombudsman for the citizens of New York City.
Isn’t that the responsibility of all elected officials everywhere?
With the sitting public advocate on her way to making history as the first person of color to be elected as attorney general of New York State, there are seemingly dozens of people vying to replace her in what will be a circus of a special election.
We understand the budget for the office is de minimis, and that having someone fight for the rights of everyday New Yorkers is important. And there are too many underprivileged and underrepresented New Yorkers who feel like they don’t have a voice. But the annual budget of the public advocate’s office is less than $4 million per year. It’s not enough to be upset about government waste, but not even close to the amount of money needed to operate a true watchdog within city government with some real teeth.
We believe the office should be shuttered, and the money earmarked for nonprofits like the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) or Citizens Union, or a collection of groups that spend every dollar fighting for regular New Yorkers. If we can’t get people on board with eliminating the office, then give it some more money and a real portfolio.