How We Make Decisions in the Era of Big Money Politics
By: Mayor Bill de Blasio
City Hall recently released hundreds of emails between my administration and New Yorkers who write to me and my staff. Some of the emails include conversations between me and donors to my political campaign and causes I was associated with. The emails have prompted a great deal of media coverage, some fair and some less so. But fair or not, they do give rise to an important discussion about how government makes decisions in the Big Money age of politics.
What these emails show in candid detail is that people frequently ask City officials for things. Some of their requests are large, some are small, and many are impractical. They often don’t get what they want. When they do, it’s only because their grievances were valid or their ideas were laudable and in our city’s interest.
At City Hall and in City agencies, decisions are made on the merits. Whether or not I am involved in the process, our government considers the facts — and only the facts — of each request or idea. The outcomes surrounding the emails that have generated so much attention have proven the integrity of this process. So, too, do many high-profile examples of my political donors not getting what they want.
There was a leading real estate developer and campaign contributor who wanted the contract for our new citywide ferry service. His proposal was good, but the City agency involved thought another one was better. He didn’t get the contract. That decision wasn’t about his political donations to me. It was about which company could best move New Yorkers around a city of waterways. The ferry system is off to great start as a result.
Another real estate developer and important financial backer of my campaign wanted to know what would happen on a land use action before the public had a chance to weigh in. I made clear that was it was impossible to say. It didn’t matter how much money he gave my campaign. I would have given the same answer to anyone. He wasn’t happy about it, but our standard of integrity doesn’t waver when dealing with the wealthy and connected.
Unfortunately, two individuals, whom we now know to be involved with a police corruption case that originated in the prior administration, also requested lots from me and their City government. One wanted us to buy a vacant lot of his for future use as a police precinct. We passed on the property. We also said no when he recommended someone for a top agency job — and when he, himself, wanted an appointment to a city commission. When he complained about our steady housing code enforcement on a property he owned, the agency in charge heard him out and treated him like any other building owner.
When an associate of his wanted a tax break on a building he owned, we said no. When he complained to an agency that his commercial water bill was inflated by a faulty meter, the agency looked into it just as it would for any taxpayer. It turned out the meter was broken — he was right — and he got the bill fairly reduced. That decision was made the right way: by professional agency staff who investigate similar claims every day.
Media reports on these contacts fixated on their access to me and ignored the fair and transparent outcomes that followed. Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City. Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.
In each of these cases, we did our job. We listened to people we represent who have ideas they think are good for our city. We heard the complaints of people who believed they were being treated unfairly. Sometimes those people are my political supporters.
Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they were right and often they were wrong. What’s important is that in each instance my administration made decisions based on the facts, not who they were.
Such has been the case when I’ve personally directed responses to people who have stopped me on the subway or on the sidewalk. I’ve had City Hall connect with people I’ve met at the gym, or during any of the 32 town hall events we’ve done across our five boroughs. Our job is to listen, help people, and treat everyone the same. Critics apparently believe those who share and support my political beliefs should be barred from accessing or complaining to their government. That’s a dangerous concept.
An honest search for the truth would recognize how much progress we’ve made as a city when it comes to the integrity of our government. Only a few decades ago, notably during the later years of Ed Koch’s tenure, corruption was commonplace in New York City. Since the early 1990s, city government has grown steadily cleaner and more transparent. New Yorkers should be proud of that progress.
With one of the biggest public budgets in the nation, it’s crucial that we have the checks and balances necessary to ensure our money is being spent effectively. It’s crucial we have disclosure and transparency protocols in place to make sure decisions are made on the merits. We have these safeguards in New York City. Places like Albany and Washington can’t say the same thing.
I came of age politically during the Watergate years. I was glued to those televised hearings as I watched the most powerful men in the nation exposed and the crimes they committed laid bare. It was for me a moment of affirmation: our system had worked. There were plenty of legislators, prosecutors and journalists seeking the truth and celebrating its triumph.
I rarely see the spirit of that collective responsibility anymore. I rarely see an appreciation for historical progress or any semblance of notice when things work the way they’re supposed to in government. A bitterness between those in power and those who hold us accountable has set in. A frequently undeserved cynicism nearly always crowds out the facts. It refuses to recognize that our democracy is built — rightly or wrongly — on the reality that candidates must seek private donations to hold public office. I hope for a time when the boundless energy spent distorting the donor-City Hall relationship can be redirected toward a demand for publicly financed elections. But some basic modicum of media fairness shouldn’t wait for this achievement.
I am proud of the work I’ve been privileged to do on behalf of New Yorkers, as are my colleagues at City Hall and in agencies across the administration. We hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards. We always will. If anyone fears the rich and powerful always get their way when it comes to city government, look closely at our public record. Despite the blaring headlines competing for your outrage, you may actually be proud of what you see.