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De Blasio, unlike past mayors, avoids public Q&A with New Yorkers

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is shown in this photo from Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Ed Koch did an average of 15 "town hall" meetings each year, no-holds-barred public forums where New Yorkers could bring their concerns to the mayor face-to-face. Rudy Giuliani did them monthly. Mike Bloomberg did them occasionally. Bill de Blasio doesn't do them at all.

The mayor, who promised in his inauguration speech to be a champion of "everyday New Yorkers," has declined in the nearly 16 months since to open himself to live, unfiltered questions from constituents at town hall meetings or -- as Bloomberg and Giuliani did -- on regular call-in radio shows.

De Blasio has barnstormed Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and even the United Kingdom to spread his progressive message. He mused about his mayoralty in a recent Rolling Stone interview that "a lot of people outside New York City understand what happened in the first year of New York City better than people in New York City."

Local frustration grows

Local community groups say de Blasio needs to do more listening inside the five boroughs.

"Our community has zero opportunity to access City Hall, and it's very frustrating," said Dr. Alan Ditchek, the neighborhood association president in Brooklyn's Manhattan Beach.

"He's busy visiting Iowa to make inroads to the national spotlight, I guess," Ditchek said. "It tells you a lot. He's got more grandiose ideas, and he's ignoring what's going on in his backyard."

In 2010, de Blasio, then the city's public advocate, hailed the virtues of town hall forums at such a meeting hosted by Ditchek's association.

"My goal is to be out in the community a lot, to have folks from my staff out in the community a lot," de Blasio said, according to a video of the event. "I would be happy to hear concerns, or take questions from anyone and everyone."

Earlier that year, he said town halls "cut down the bureaucracy that stands between New Yorkers and City Hall."

Robert Holden, longtime president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said the group's town halls under past mayors did just that. De Blasio hasn't accepted an invitation.

"You write to the mayor, you write to various agencies, they don't answer you," said Holden, whose group represents Middle Village and Maspeth, Queens. "If he wanted to really get in the good graces of New York City, he would do more town halls."

Asked to comment, de Blasio spokesman Peter Kadushin said the mayor hears from New Yorkers in other ways.

"Whether it is at Colson coffee shop in Park Slope, his local YMCA, the subway, or at a Mets game, the mayor is always eager to speak with and hear from New Yorkers," Kadushin said. "In addition to the mayor's regular engagement with New Yorkers, representatives and officials from the administration attend almost nightly public meetings."

As examples of personal engagement, the mayor's staff pointed to a handful of events, such as invitation-only sessions with school parent bloggers and Staten Island community leaders. They also cited a children's Halloween party at Gracie Mansion. All were last year.

De Blasio has made occasional appearances on hip-hop radio station Hot 97, but doesn't take listener calls.

The mayor did host a Google Hangout online video forum in April 2014. He took about a half dozen questions. Several cited a personal connection to the mayor, including one from someone who had worked on his mayoral transition.

John Gambling, who co-hosted Bloomberg's radio show, says stations have reached out to de Blasio's staff to urge him to host a program, to no avail.

"It would help with his credibility and approvals," Gambling said.

An NBC 4/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll last week showed de Blasio's job approval at 44 percent. While a majority of voters said the mayor is someone who "cares about people like you," the percentages have dipped.

Missed opportunity?

Marist pollster Lee Miringoff said it's a leap to say that call-in radio or town halls would boost de Blasio's poll numbers.

"It may be a missed opportunity, but honestly he may just not want to be combative with people who might call in," Miringoff said.

Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said "it's a good strategy" for de Blasio to stick with more scripted appearances.

"It keeps him from sparring with people," Sheinkopf said. "He does have social media, and when he needs to show up, he does."

But Bob Liff, another Democratic consultant and a de Blasio fan, said the mayor should consider town halls because they help pierce the bubble that can isolate public officials.

"De Blasio is quite capable of standing up to anything that comes at him," Liff said.

Mayoral precedent

By their counts, Koch did about 180 town halls during his 12 years as mayor and Giuliani did 96 over eight years. Bloomberg did them sporadically -- a spokesman on Friday said he couldn't provide a total.

Historically, the forums sometimes turned raucous. But Joe Lhota, a Giuliani deputy mayor, said they were worth it.

Complaint gets results

Lhota, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against de Blasio and promised to hold town halls if elected, noted that a major review of the city's water metering system came about because of a complaint voiced at a Giuliani town hall.

The forums would also benefit the mayor's senior staff, who joined their boss at the meetings, he said.

"It required all of the commissioners to be on their toes about what was going on," Lhota said. "It was team-building for the City Hall staff and the commissioners."

In-person feedback can provide insights not picked up from data collection, said Bill Cunningham, a former communications aide to Bloomberg.

"The benefit is that somebody gets to ask a thoughtful question about their neighborhood," he said.

Liff said that if de Blasio started going to town halls, "He's going to hear complaints. What's wrong with hearing complaints? This is New York. Complaining is in our DNA."

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