2004-12-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky

Writing in one of the New York dailies recently, columnist Jack Newfield noted that the city’s war against rats on the streets (the four-legged kind, not the two-legged), was being lost. Rats, he suggested, were digging in all over town and city agency efforts to evict them were coming up short. By way of solution, he offered a proposal by City Councilman Bill Perkins to create a new agency with a ‘“rat czar” to bring new focus to the issue, a focus that the existing structure, reflecting the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as lead agency, supported by the Sanitation Department, Parks and others, just hadn’t made possible. With all due respect, I would suggest that the answer does not lie in creating still another bureaucracy but in getting the bureaucracy right in the first place.

For roughly 18 months, beginning at the end of 1997, I was deeply involved in the Health Department’s Pest Control program, managing the lot cleaning and extermination division of that initiative, though not the inspectorial or property ownership research and billing units.

These other two divisions had been split off from lot cleaning and extermination by Health Department management, anxious to stem the hemorrhaging of a failed Pest Control program that had been inadequately conceived and implemented in the fall of 1997, in response to City Hall’s urgent demands for Departmental action. Both initiatives, the original program and the split set-up with which I was involved, were abject failures.

The reasons they failed were many but they boiled down to a few core problems. Top Health Department management did not really believe, in their heart of hearts, that rats could actually be controlled by Departmental action and so viewed the Pest Control program as more of a way to placate an angry public and as an opportunity to pull in added revenue (along with supplemental city funding), than as a means for actually altering the situation in the city’s streets and neighborhoods. Because of this lack of seriousness, the program, and the Department more generally, suffered from fragmentation of responsibility, a flawed understanding of the rat problem and how to address it, and an absence of the top down managerial oversight needed to pull the program’s divergent strands together into a single, focused initiative. As a result, the rat population kept expanding while the bureaucrats dithered.

Regrettably, I was one of those bureaucrats. Though I tried mightily to change Departmental attitudes at the time about what could be done, I could make no headway in an agency culture that had grown insular and indifferent to the public’s concerns. In the end I lost the battle I was waging as the Pest Control program was finally reconsolidated, in June 1999, under new “new” management. Efforts were made to retool the program for yet a third time. But the same misconceptions and administrative deficiencies that had plagued us, during my involvement with the program, persisted under the new regime. As recent evidence suggests, the new version of the initiative has been no more successful than its predecessors. Not long ago, I noticed a few rather fat looking rats right here in Rockaway, scurrying across Beach Channel Drive at dusk. Perhaps, given the Health Department’s professional disdain for the mundane problem of rat control, this is just not doable within that particular agency.

Nevertheless, the answer is not more bureaucracy in the form of “rat czars” or a new, stand-alone Pest Control entity, as suggested by Newfield and Perkins. Nor is the solution just a matter of pumping in more funds, which would likely be misapplied in any case, as has happened all too frequently in the past. The answer, instead, lies in lodging the function of rat eradication in a place where management actually does believe in its mission and in structuring the resulting initiative in a way that: 1) addresses the rats at their source; 2) looks at the problem comprehensively and not piecemeal; and 3) empowers those responsible to enforce and monitor compliance by all city and private entities regardless of organizational placement or political clout .

The old program lacked all three of these capabilities.

There’s good reason to believe they are also absent in the program’s most recent incarnation.

Creating still another new bureaucracy is not likely, by itself, to fix what’s gone wrong. But it will certainly establish yet another bureaucratic constituency with a vested interest in its own self-perpetuation and in enlarging its budget, to the detriment of the city’s taxpayers . . . but consistent with the interests of the rats.

Rats In The City

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