Governing NYC By Writing a Check?

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August 4, 2011; Source: New York Times | What began as a “toss-off laugh line”—New York City’s most intractable problems could be solved by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg just by pulling out his checkbook—has now become an “unprecedented reality in the Big Apple, writes New York Times’ columnist Michael Powell.  This week, Bloomberg drove a “two-gilded shot” of his own money into helping to cover the cost of the midyear Regents exam for several thousand high school seniors and, with fellow philanthropist, George Soros, launching a $30 million-plus initiative to bolster the educational and economic prospects for young black and Latino men.  

While some laud the mayor’s largesse, noting that in these lean economic times, “it would be a strange beggar to turn away a wealthy man’s money,” especially for poor and low-income kids who stand to benefit from it, others are not so sure.  As Powell notes, there are legitimate questions that might be raised about “government by personal checkbook,” including the “thin membrane between philanthropy and mayoral advantage.”  The mayor’s first deputy mayor, Patricia Harris, for example, is both the CEO and chairwoman of the Mayor’s $1.75 billion charity.  Nonprofits that have received grants previously from the mayor’s foundation—including numerous arts programs—have benefited but have also, “slowly almost imperceptibly” become willing advocates for Bloomberg’s policy agenda (including the mayor’s successful attempt to revoke term limits that would allow him to run for a third term).  And then there’s the issue of reconciling the mayor’s philanthropy and his “personal and policy contradictions,” among them, running a police department that, Powell observes, “stops and frisks record numbers of black and Latino men…sometimes at gunpoint.” 

A Los Angeles Times article echoes the above, reporting that the NYC mayor has “become much more public with his giving.”  In addition to the Young Men’s initiative, the mayor has also recently given a $50 million gift to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign and $24 million to five cities to support innovative government projects—efforts that have drawn both praise and criticism for mixing philanthropy with government, the article notes.  Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, who is quoted, sums up the dilemma:  “You have private money which is pushing where the public money will be spent…Where’s the evaluation process?  Where’s the public input?”  Those questions will become increasingly important to ask as the line between the role of publicly elected officials and philanthropists becomes more blurred, and in turn, the public’s ability to assume its voice will be paramount in public policy decisions becomes less certain.

What are your thoughts on this situation?– Cynthia Gibson