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Do we even need a public advocate?

But in terms of affecting real change, there's just not enough teeth in the job to move the needle in a big way. They can point to the mess. They can't force anybody to clean it up.

Corey Johnson during a rally on the City

Corey Johnson during a rally on the City Hall steps on Dec. 20, 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

So, just what does the public advocate do again?

There are 17 people running to be public advocate in a special election on Feb. 26. It’s been a pretty quiet election, even by special election standards. Maybe that says something about the impact that the public advocate’s office has on the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

The top duty of the public advocate isn’t an actual duty at all: The public advocate is first in the line of mayoral succession. They take the reins if the mayor dies or otherwise vacates the office. So job one is “stand by.”

More to the point, the public advocate’s seat has been a stepping stone to higher office. That’s how Bill de Blasio got to City Hall. Mark Green tried to turn the same trick in 2001, but got beaten by Mike Bloomberg. Letitia James was public advocate before becoming state attorney general. Her elevation put this whole special election in motion.

So you can raise your visibility and establish your five-borough profile as public advocate. There’s been upward mobility for some who’ve held the seat. It’s been a springboard.

Great. But what does the public advocate actually do?

According to the City Charter, the public advocate can take part in City Council discussions, but doesn’t have a vote. They can introduce Council legislation. That’s a good perk.

They can monitor the operations of city agencies, and make proposals. They can review the various complaints that New Yorkers lodge against city entities. They can receive complaints on their own. They can evaluate the performance of city agencies. They can keep an eye on private businesses. They can hold public hearings.

OK, but what does the public advocate do for me? Is this an office that’s absolutely necessary?

True, some good can come out of the office. It can shine a light on issues. It can commission reports and take surveys on important topics, issues that sometimes don’t get the citywide attention they deserve.

But in terms of affecting real change, there’s just not enough teeth in the job to move the needle in a big way. They can point to the mess. They can’t force anybody to clean it up.

If I’m going to look for someone to “advocate” on my behalf, I’m going to go to my borough president. Or my member of Congress. Or any number of my other local elected officials. They’re the ones on the ground here. They know the conditions. They’re accountable to me.

True, the public advocate is accountable to me as well. We vote for the office every four years. But it’s a far different thing to have someone who’s accountable to one borough or district as opposed to somebody who’s accountable to the whole city.

The office budget for the public advocate is around $3 million, including a $165,000 salary. Pretty nominal in the context of a multibillion-dollar city budget.

But if you divided that up among the borough presidents, I’m sure they could come up with some productive uses for the money. They could take on some of these oversight duties, and really focus in on how city agencies are missing the boat in each individual borough.

It’s going to cost the city millions of dollars to run this special election, including millions of taxpayer funds that will be doled out in matching funds.

Here’s the kicker: Whoever wins will have to run again in the general election in November. Which means we’ll likely have a primary in September, which could again be a crowded affair.

Couldn’t we have just let City Council Speaker Corey Johnson babysit the seat for another couple of months, as has been happening so far? Have you really noticed that there’s been a vacancy in the public advocate’s office?

Me neither.

Tom Wrobleski wrote this piece for the Staten Island Advance.

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