2007-11-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Local, Federal, Or Something In Between?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

When I ran for State Assembly in 2006, to represent the 23rd AD, and got soundly trounced for my troubles by Democratic incumbent Audrey Pheffer, I learned a couple of things. The most important was that voters didn't really care as much as I did about the "big questions."

I tried to make my campaign about issues of principle and did a lot of talking and writing about the problems up in Albany. I detailed the high tax-and-spend culture there (we're among the highest-taxed states in the nation). I reminded folks that New York State relies on an off-the-books accounting system to hide its debt and do an end-run around voters, who, according to the State Charter, should be approving or rejecting any new debt issuance via a statewide ballot. I also noted that at least one important cause of these kinds of problems was that we had a rigged legislative system in Albany which makes our elected representatives into ciphers for the Governor and majority leaders in both legislative houses. The third big piece of my campaign had to do with highlighting the state's electoral system, which sets the bar too high for real political competition.

This last involves high petition signature requirements, along with complex and often arcane petition qualifying rules, making it a challenge to get on the ballot. This benefits incumbents, of course, as well as people with lots of money (like Mike Bloomberg) or a strong political machine (the Democrats). But for the average guy or gal who just wants to stand for an election, or any of the smaller parties (including New York's downstate Republicans), the chances of getting on the ballot are so daunting that few genuinely qualified individuals willingly try anymore. But these points cut no ice with the voters I found. So what did resonate?

Time and again, I saw crowds responding positively to my opponent's claims of having funneled state monies to local needs. Local pork, called earmarks at the federal level and "member items" here in New York, remain the order of the day. Time and again, I heard about local groups who, though evincing sympathy with my political positions, felt it was more important to return my opponent to Albany because of her role in providing funds for their projects and programs.

As a reformist candidate, I couldn't promise money to groups of voters in good conscience, nor would I have wanted to. Don't get me wrong. Many Member Items go to useful purposes, even if their real purpose is to keep voters happy with, and dependent on, their current state legislators. But at the end of the day, it just seemed to me that there was something rather venal about a votes-for-cash program, even if the cash is our own tax dollars coming back to us. Indeed, if it wasn't for such wasteful spending across the state (because it looks like most of our legislators make a fetish of these Member Items), taxes could actually be lowered and state debt reduced.

Still, this kind of a system cuts both ways. While local legislators are busy greasing voting machines with their own tax dollars, they are at least paying attention to local concerns, as well. Even the mayor and his administration are local enough for this. On the other hand, the arm's length relationship we have with the federal government, where there is little opportunity to affect those in charge, is less salubrious. A case in point: compare the conditions of two boardwalks on the West End of the peninsula.

The one that stretches east along the oceanfront, from Beach 126 Street, is constructed mostly of wood, with some concrete stretches. A stroll along its length reveals that its railings are maintained, as are its benches; and, while its boards frequently rot out or pop up, a little hollering and a few phone calls to one of our local City Council Members or to the New York City Parks Department, which has responsibility for this walkway, tends to get results. This city-maintained boardwalk is actually in pretty good shape along most of its beach frontage.

On the other hand, take a look at the Riis Park Boardwalk that runs west from Beach 149 Street. Back in the 1970s during the Nixon administration, that concrete walkway was placed under federal jurisdiction, when Riis Park was incorporated with the old military base at Ft. Tilden into the newly designated Gateway National Recreation Area. The walkway is now in a state of advanced disrepair. For those of us who remember the Riis Park boardwalk in its pre-Gateway days, the difference is shocking. Riis Park boardwalk railings are rotting out, broken or non-existent, having been replaced for long stretches by unsightly concrete road barriers as makeshift railings. Not only is this unattractive, it's dangerous in places where the jagged, rusting edges of the remaining rails are exposed to the touch. At the same time, the concrete along the edges is spalling and crumbling underfoot. Benches are rotted out, too, and water fountains are nonfunctional, even during the beach season.

Why such a difference? Is Gateway under-funded or is it a matter of priorities?

Over the years, Gateway has undertaken a number of physical renovations, so it's a little shocking to look at the condition of things there today. A couple of years back, Gateway completed a renovation to restore the historic old Riis Park Bathhouse. That work, rumored to have cost something like $12 million (though I haven't been able to confirm this), involved restoration of the small, one-story building's shell with new exterior brick work, a new roof, new windows and new doors. Inside, the minimal plumbing requirements yielded two public lavatories and a single small kitchen. The rest of the space consists of one small office on the building's western side, a conference room with skylight in the center, and a wide, open hallway, laid out horseshoe like between the small rooms on the outer perimeter of the structure and the conference room/meeting area in the middle.

Could such a minimal renovation have actually cost $12 million? It's hard to say without seeing the "specs," but far more sophisticated capital renovations have been brought in for under $2-3 million by New York City's own capital spending agencies (nor are their efforts notorious for being especially economical). If the bathhouse renovation cost as much as rumored, it's a little hard to argue that adequate funding wasn't available to restore a seriously deteriorating boardwalk area only a couple of miles long, nearby.

The explanation for the big difference between the two boardwalks may well be one of accountability. New York City officials (elected and appointed) have nowhere to hide when the pressure is turned up. If agency managers aren't amenable to addressing local concerns, their bosses surely are. If not, they'll hear about it at the polls. So the high degree of sensitivity of local officials to local voter interests works to ensure that grounds and facilities under local jurisdiction are maintained and that problems are speedily addressed. It's the flip-side of vote buying via Member Items.

But the federal park service is a horse of an entirely different color. Managers of the national park areas don't report to local politicians. Their chain of command goes straight up to the Department of Interior in Washington D.C. And who does that federal bureaucracy report to? Ultimately, the national administration in Washington, of course. But the administration has bigger fish to fry most of the time and so federal agencies are able to operate in an insulated fashion, immune to the concerns and needs of the local community. Unlike the City's Parks Department, they don't have "boro commissioners" we can complain to, nor are their managers directly accessible to most of us.

When politicians and those who work for them are concerned enough about you as a constituent, they're likely to pay a great deal more attention to local needs. On the other hand, if there's no way for locals to effectively communicate with, or influence, those in charge of an area, you get potentially misallocated capital spending and crumbling infrastructure. Perhaps it's time to re-think that old Nixonian decision which consolidated Riis Park into federally administered park land, and reclaim it, once again, for ourselves.


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