The public advocate: High power in an obscure post

(Credit: Urbanite)

By Pete Catapano

The person who holds this position is second in line to the mayor, gets paid $150,000 a year, oversees a staff of about 40 and a budget just under $3 million.

Yet few seem to know what the public advocate does, and others wonder whether it’s a position worth keeping.

"I definitely don't know what that is. … it advocates public things?” said Nidia Medina, 24, of Brooklyn.

"Yes, Betsy Gosbourne (sic) used to work there,” said Benjamin Arnold, 55, of the Bronx. "Actually I'm not sure."

The race for the public advocate is one of the mostly hotly contested in the November election, as politicians line up to replace Betsy Gotbaum, who isn’t running for a third term. The only other person to hold the position was Mark Green, who became the first public advocate in 1993 when it replaced the City Council President.

(Betsy Gotbaum/RJ Mickelson, amNewYork)For the record

The public advocate responds to New Yorkers’ complaints about city agencies, presides over the City Council and keeps tabs on the mayor.

It’s function is often confused with the city’s 311 information/help hotline, which has a nearly $50 million budget, but is largely a referral service.

“The city gets a big bang for its buck … from a small, tiny budget and you need to have oversight over a real powerful mayor,” Gotbaum said.

Almost Abolished

In 1999, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to obliterate the position, fearing that his nemesis Green would become mayor if he was elected to the senate — but a referendum to amend the City Charter was voted down.

In 2005, Jim Lesczynski ran for the public advocate as a Liberterian, vowing to dissolve the “worthless” office.

“Green had the job for eight years and did nothing with it and Gotbaum is going on eight years and has done nothing,” Lesczynski said. “There’s nothing they can do with it, it’s a fairly toothless position.”

Denora Getachew, director of public policy for the good government group Citizens Union, said: “We can’t say wholeheartedly that it’s not a useful office. We need to look at the way the city offices are overlapping and working together and what’s the best way to deliver services to the people.”

Success on a tight budget

Sarah Krauss, spokeswoman for the public advocate, stressed the office’s efficiency — 82 percent of complaints were settled in a New Yorker’s favor last year.

“We get 12,000 complaints a year,” she said. “Unlike 311, we see them through … until there is some kind of resolution.”

“That’s why I think all this conversation about not having it is ridiculous,” Gotbaum said. “People don’t know about us, but if we could advertise we’d have an increased volume of calls.”

Krauss added that it’s problematic to be keeping tabs on the mayor when he plays a role in their funding.

The mayor, though, doesn’t have the only say in the public advocate’s budget.

“The budget is set in collaborative process with the City Council,” said Bloomberg spokesman Marc Lavorgnia.

Richard Brown, a 55-year-old retired Brooklyn cop, is a supporter. “If they see the public being cheated, they make themselves a pest until they do something. … We need noisemakers."

Five candidates running for public advocate tell amNewYork why they want the job:

Alex Zablocki, Republican candidate

“The main character of the office is to answer complaints about city agencies and it’s something I’ve been doing for six years working (as an excutive assistant for Staten Island state senator and former Councilman) for Andrew Lanza. I want it because of a genuine need to help people.”

Norman Siegel, civil rights lawyer

“I want the position to: A) protect and enhance the rights of all New Yorkers and B) hold city government accountable.”

Eric Gioia, City Councilman

“There are too many people in this city who feel invisible … I’m running for public advocate to ensure that they have a voice at City Hall.”

Bill De Blasio, City Councilman

“As public advocate, I want to continue to do what I have done my entire life - bring families and communities together to change New York for the better.”

Mark Green, former public advocate

“I'm running because our city is in trouble and struggling New Yorkers need a strong advocate in government.”

What the office does

The public advocate’s office helps everyone from business owners who’ve been denied permits by the Buildings Department because of paperwork mess ups to residents who’ve gotten parking tickets they don’t deserve.

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