Monday, February 14, 2011
City Council Wants to Know When Bloomberg’s Away by Michael Barbaro - NYTimes.com
His poll numbers have slid. His first choice to lead the city schools turned him down. And the budget deficit? Don’t even ask.
But of all the aggravations that have accompanied Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s final term, perhaps none is as unexpected, personal and stinging as this: Now people have the temerity to ask when he is leaving town.
After shrugging off his globe-trotting, none-of-your-business disappearances for nine years, lawmakers are suddenly pestering City Hall aides about the mayor’s weekend whereabouts.
Editorial writers have derisively compared him to the perpetually camouflaged Waldo, wondering how New Yorkers are supposed to find him. And a member of the City Council is exploring a bill that could — what’s this? — require Mr. Bloomberg to notify the public every time he, say, jets off to Bermuda for a round of golf.
A mandatory sign-out sheet for the billionaire mayor? City Hall seems apoplectic. But the clamor is unlikely to die down, largely because the mayor refuses to disclose where he and his top lieutenants were when his administration botched the cleanup of the Christmas weekend blizzard, creating confusion about who was in charge.
During such a crisis, said Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., “No time should be wasted trying to figure out who is in power.” Mr. Vallone has made inquiries about legislation that would compel City Hall to disclose whenever a mayor leaves town, and who is in charge during his absence.
In the complicated marriage between Mr. Bloomberg and those he governs, there had always been an unspoken understanding: He ran the city well, and they resisted the urge to poke into his private life.
His handling of the Dec. 26 snowstorm, however, appeared to change that. Now, New Yorkers are treating him like, well, an ordinary public official, demanding pesky information like whether he is on their continent during a disaster.
“He is now being treated as mayors in New York City have historically been treated,” said Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, who under the City Charter would become mayor if Mr. Bloomberg were incapacitated (or, theoretically, stuck indefinitely in the Caribbean).
Mr. de Blasio said he wished Mr. Bloomberg and his aides would simply acknowledge whenever he left the city. “I think they would save themselves a lot of trouble,” Mr. de Blasio said.
The mayor does not see it that way. He jealously guards his privacy and cherishes secret jaunts to his five vacation homes, in places from Vail, Colo., to London. It is not unusual for him to spend a weekend in Paris, a six-hour flight from New York. This weekend, like many others, Mr. Bloomberg had no public events scheduled, and his aides declined to say where he was.
For a decade, Mr. Bloomberg has steadfastly rejected calls for transparency in his personal travels, arguing that in an age of instant communication, nobody needs to know his exact location. The mayor, he argues, is mayor whether he is in City Hall, or Singapore, or somewhere in between.
Pressed to explain how he can govern from abroad, his aides for the first time disclosed the high-tech apparatus he used to remain in communication. He has equipped his private planes with satellite phones and has access at all times to an emergency government communications system that was designed to operate even if the telecommunications system was sabotaged or became overloaded.
They have come in handy. In 2005, after terrorists bombed the London subway system, Mr. Bloomberg was on a flight from Asia to New York. Aboard his Falcon 900, the phone rang: It was his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, consulting him on heightened security measures on the city’s trains and buses.
Still, the hyper-secrecy that surrounds Mr. Bloomberg’s comings and goings is highly unusual. Mayor Edward I. Kochnot only shared his vacation itineraries with the world, but also held teleconferences with the news media from wherever he was visiting. New York governors have routinely disclosed where they will spend their day, whether or not public events are scheduled. At his most coy, Gov. David A. Paterson alerted constituents that he was in Suffolk County — clever code for the beachside villages of the Hamptons.
Even the president, whose job Mr. Bloomberg has at times compared to his own, does not try to hide his movements. On Christmas Day, for example, the public was told that Barack Obama skipped his morning workout, watched a basketball game on television and left his Hawaiian vacation home at 3:26 p.m. in a short-sleeve shirt and dark slacks. Reporters who inquired about how Mr. Bloomberg spent the day were told this: no comment.
Increasingly, that answer seems, even to his closest allies, insufficient. During hearings about the blizzard, held by the City Council, lawmakers struggled to determine who was in charge over the Christmas weekend. Under city law, when Mr. Bloomberg leaves the city, mayoral power falls to the public advocate, unless it is delegated to a deputy mayor.
But the Bloomberg administration has tried to set up a blanket policy: Rather than delegate power each time he leaves New York, Mr. Bloomberg signed an executive order stipulating that his first deputy mayor, Patricia E. Harris, was in charge whenever he was away. Under the same order, if Ms. Harris was not in town, power then skipped to the deputy mayor for operations, a job now held by Stephen Goldsmith.
As the storm rolled toward New York City on Dec. 25, Mr. Bloomberg was in Bermuda, where he has a waterfront vacation home, according to three people told of his travels. Mr. Goldsmith was in his Washington town house. As for Ms. Harris? Nobody would say.
Mr. Vallone, a Democrat from Queens, said his potential legislation would not require the mayor to disclose his whereabouts, but simply to acknowledge his absence and to name his designated fill-in. Mr. Vallone said his real anxiety was that the mayor might be away during a terrorist attack, when momentous decisions, like whether to lock down a neighborhood or shutter the subway system, must be made in seconds.
“I almost always believe that a more open and transparent process works better,” Mr. Vallone said. He said his bill would probably not require such disclosures when a mayor took a short trip to Albany or Long Island, for example.
Stu Loeser, a spokesman for the mayor, said such legislation was unnecessary because Mr. Bloomberg never fully ceded his authority, making it unimportant to disclose who was where.
“Leadership and decision-making powers of the mayoralty,” Mr. Loeser said, “remain with the person who was elected mayor."
He said Mr. Bloomberg had earned his privacy. “The mayor is at work by 7:15 most mornings, and entitled to hours off and a private life,” Mr. Loeser said. “And whether he’s in Bayside, Bay Ridge, or visiting his mom in the Bay State, he’s always reachable and always in charge.”
Mr. Vallone’s bill could prove difficult to dismiss, however. The councilman is both a longtime ally of the mayor and a popular figure in the Council.
Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he sympathized with Mr. Vallone’s intention.
“It’s surprising that the mayor is not required to do this already,” Mr. Russianoff said. The speaker of the Council,Christine C. Quinn of Manhattan, has signaled openness to the concept.
And it seems likely to resonate with residents still upset about the problems caused by the holiday storm.
“I completely support it,” said Marsha Zoback, 57, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and struggled to navigate the snow-clogged streets with a bad hip.
“If you don’t want to tell people where you are going,” she said, “don’t be in public office.”