A Monthly Column about Politics.
Sugar Soda Ban Ruling Underscores Bloomberg Arrogance
Sometimes, like with his attempt to ban large sugary soft drinks, Mayor Bloomberg pursues laudable goals. Sometimes he achieves what he wants. Surprisingly, however, he often fails because he tries to ignore the legislative process or bulldoze legislators when their approvals are needed and gets a pushback. This is due in part because his arrogance and pomposity are almost as large as his fortune.
The large soda ban went down, in part, because it was flawed. You couldn’t buy an 18 ounce cup of soda but you could buy two 16 ounce cups, or a 24 ounce milkshake full of calories. You could go to a grocery next to Dunkin’ Donuts and buy a 32 ounce bottle of the same soda you couldn’t buy in a cup at Dunkin’ Donuts. The judge called that part “arbitrary and capricious.” However, he also held that Bloomberg had basically enacted a law without going through the legislative process. He skipped the City Council and pronounced a law on his own. The courts have gone after him before on this point, similar to when he tried to allow livery cabs to be hailed from the streets in Manhattan or tried to mandate gas mileage for cabs. More recently, he tried to give the pavilion at the north end of Union Square Park to a private restaurant.
I don’t want to offend my neighbors when I talk about Bloomberg’s arrogance; I know that he is held in higher esteem in our part of town than he is in others. His is a smooth-running machine, but he is all too frequently not open to the democratic process.
At least Rudy Giuliani made a point of holding Town Hall meetings in every community board district in NYC. Of course, he would shout people down if they were critical of him, but he would at least come to community meetings flanked by commissioners and hear what people had to say. Bloomberg hasn’t held one Town Hall meeting in 12 years and his commissioners and boards often follow suit. I support bike lanes wholeheartedly, but Bloomberg’s Transportation Commissioner has laid them out with little community input. The City Planning Commission has been even worse, remaking whole swaths of NYC in the way they want, and in the way the real estate industry wants, even if there is huge public opposition.
One area which has been particularly infuriating is education. Under Bloomberg, Community School Boards – locally elected Boards which actually set policy in community school districts – were eliminated. The legislature created “Mayoral Control” full of requirements for public hearings, Educational Input Statements, and open meetings. These were meant to create some checks and balances; they would, if the Mayor in control cared about public input. Bloomberg hasn’t done a particularly outstanding job about fixing our schools. He has a “strategy,” however, which he has imposed in school building after school building, usually in the face of hundreds of protesting parents and opposition by local elected officials. Sometimes his plan includes putting a new charter school in the middle of an existing, often successful school building. The Department of Education (DOE) declares the school “underutilized” (even if every classroom is in use) and then adds 400-500 new students. Another thrust of his strategy has involved “closing” schools, but then opening them back up in the same building, with a new name (PS264 instead of 164) and a new principal The charter schools often screw up the ones they are placed into by taking up space used for smaller classes, computer labs, special education workrooms, etc., and by creating lunch schedules where kids are assigned 9:30 am lunch periods. (I kid you not.) Furthermore, the closed and then reopened schools simply create demoralization and confusion. There is no record that either of these approaches has worked, but the Mayor has plowed ahead.
I have been present at public hearings about these DOE moves where 500 or more parents show up and where hundreds sign up to speak; all the DOE does is send someone with a tape recorder. Then, on the night of a vote of their Board (called the Panel on Education Policy or “PEP”), 1,000 or more parents show up, protesting about three or four plans. They speak for hours. When they are through, the PEP, without any discussion (except for a comment by the Manhattan member, Patrick Sullivan), always votes in favor. (Sullivan, appointed by Borough President Scott Stringer, always votes “no.”) No debate, no public input by staff about the objections being raised. In mid-March, the PEP approved putting a Success Academy kindergarten-through-5th grade elementary school at the Washington Irving Campus, at 16th Street and Irving Place, which already houses five high schools, some of which have 95% non-English speaking students. This school is in Community School District 2, which includes all of the Central and West Village. The teachers, the principals, and the parents, at all five schools, said BIG MISTAKE! PEP approved it anyway, without one comment.
Be forewarned. Unless we elect a new Mayor who is less imperial and who cares more about public democracy – about local school boards (now called Community Education Councils) and Community Boards – the new found local school at 75 Morton Street is in big trouble. Success Academy has its eye on the West Village and Chelsea, and the wonderful school parents in our community want to create will not materialize.
Just imagine a community process that public officials actually listened to! Ah, I’m beginning to feel like John Lennon.
Arthur Z. Schwartz publishes a regular column in WestView. He is the State Democratic Committee Member for the Lower West Side.