It was my dream job. Besting hundreds of applicants, I was selected in December 1990 as lead lawyer for a new city agency tasked with creating radical reform — to give the public broad access to government information. The Feerick Charter Revision Commission willed the agency into existence.
In February, 1991, with the stroke of a pen in some nameless office in lower Manhattan, Mayor David Dinkins killed my dream. In what Newsday called a “scofflaw budget” at the time, he squeezed out some bucks by de-funding the Commission on Public Information and Communication before it was even born. I moved on. But, 20 years later, what about those reforms?
It’s an endless cycle – we have a new charter revision commission, and voters will see other reform options on the ballot on November 2, like term limits. Oh, we know how much that matters. Since 1991, no one has again suggested broad access to government information in New York City, even though Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s Project Sunlight has created a statewide equivalent. Conservative think-tanks are cranking out document requests that have resulted in outrageous but true stories of rampant waste, fraud and abuse (often targeted at labor unions). The New York Daily News is also actively seeking out great statistics that make eye-popping stories. We recently learned that in a sleepy place called Ridgewood, Queens, Democratic powerhouse Vito Lopez founded a not-for-profit housing group where ASSISTANTS earn salaries in excess of half a million dollars. Talk about doing good by doing well!
Raise your hand if you think that a few such document requests would turn up fraud and abuse in Rockaway that would make your hair curl. Equal access to government information by the media and civic groups is exactly what Rockaway needs to fix its problems. Remember, the developers of nursing homes and drug-treatment facilities and other civic “amenities” can afford to buy such access. Our civic groups cannot.
Instead, community activists trying to turn things around on the peninsula are enmeshed in endless cycles of e-mails and meetings where we move around dots, look for remaining historic spots, and locate empty plots. With an election around the corner, our politicians might be willing to promise us — lots! Something grand and new! Will it be at Floyd Bennett Field, Beach 108 Street and Beach Channel Drive, or at the Edgemere Landfill? Get out your markers, easels, and chart paper. Google maps are cool. Cover them with dots. Maybe someone will listen. Get the kids involved! Maybe someone will care. Hopes are high.
I heard that Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson drove across the peninsula from end to end recently, on a mission. You know what he saw. We see it every day. Yet, the eyesores always seem to be mysteries wrapped in enigmas, and the answers lie with agencies called DYCD, HPD, EDC, DDC, HHC, BSA, and on and on. I’d love to see Jonathan Gaska of Community Board 14 do more to help educate the community, but he’s probably kept busy in meetings with those who already know the acronyms.
We need an Independent Local Public Advocate to get all of these agencies — city, state and federal — to pay attention to the things that matter to those of us who own homes here. There are several candidates who already do a good job of advocating for their supporters. Remember, renters can always decide to leave at minimal cost. If the housing crisis has taught us anything in the past few years, it’s that once you buy a stake in the community, you can get stuck. Better protect that investment.
I’m not talking dots, spots or empty lots. Although the recreation agenda is nice, it’s not the most important thing to the homeowners of Rockaway. That would be the rising water levels and the quality of water in the bay. Don’t ask Al Gore about pollution or global warming. Talk to people who live near the bay in Broad Channel. Look at the storm drains near the bay during a heavy Nor’easter. The bay is full at times, and there is nowhere for the overflow to go. For a real ick-fest, watch the graphic You Tube video dubbed “Poonami,” showing the sewage overflow into the Gowanus that occurred during the September tornado and rainstorm. I found out at a recent meeting that the feds do not allow swimming in the bay due to high fecal coliform levels. Can you say: “poo?”
Waterfront access may become a moot point in about ten years. The bay could be IN your living room. Just keep an inflatable kayak under the sofa, because you might need it. We’d better hope it’s not Poonami.