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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

The age of the imperial mayor comes to New York City

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to be known as "The Green Mayor" and has stated he thinks climate change may have been a reason for Hurricane Sandy. (Jan. 18, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Welcome to the age of the imperial mayor in the largest U.S. city.

No matter who holds the job, New York City's mayor uses a $70 billion-plus annual operating budget to run sprawling departments, regulatory boards and agencies.

If citizens push to propose a charter change on the ballot, the mayor can pre-empt it by appointing a charter commission that will adhere to his agenda. Even if a referendum has passed without mayoral approval, it can be nullified from the upper reaches of City Hall, as in the two-term limit.

Mayors negotiate budgets with a 51-member City Council -- but first get to set the projections and size of the fiscal plan. Compared with the clout that Long Island's county legislatures have -- over contracts, for example -- the council holds the status of a very junior partner in the city.

nBorough halls have become the Potemkin villages of municipal authority, giving a slight illusion of decentralization in a very centralized government. The possible exception is Staten Island, where geographic isolation helps preserve identity, and thus, the influence of the borough president's office.

When Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, borough presidents could still appoint Board of Education members. No more. Early in his tenure, Bloomberg got state lawmakers to abolish the board and give him control of the school system.

Community school boards, beset by their own problems, also were scrapped.

Still, the mayor's 2013 executive budget allocated $24 million in expenses for the five borough presidents, and allowed for more in capital funds. But the positions have largely been advisory, ceremonial bully pulpits since a quarter-century ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled their powers violated the one-person one-vote principle and the city charter was rewritten. They are influential at best and patronage dumps at worst for the political party organizations, which are still borough-based.

More than ever before, the mayor thus has become executive over the boroughs, which are essentially five counties ranging in size from big to enormous.

This mayoral campaign season, like others in the past, includes all manner of populist appeals from Bloomberg's would-be successors about sharing resources and choices with all neighborhoods and boroughs.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio uses the terms "borough-ism" and "borough bias" to call Bloomberg Manhattan-centric when it comes to regulating and drawing fine money from local businesses.

Ex-Comptroller Bill Thompson notes he was the first candidate to advise in late October against holding the New York City Marathon after superstorm Sandy while people in the city's devastated outer reaches were still burying the dead.

Citing any mayor's huge influence over land-use, Sal Albanese refuses developers' and lobbyists' contributions.

Surveys don't suggest much excitement yet in the race to succeed Bloomberg.

But the decision will be huge. Thompson, for one, has said on the campaign trail that the mayor's actions can have more impact on the day-to-day lives of residents than even the president's.

Candidates have their slogans and sound bites. But the way power has gravitated over the long term to City Hall, the motto of the eventual winner could well be: "One City, One Boss."

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