Michael Bloomberg was a good mayor of New York City, and he’d make a good president.
Over his 12 years, crime declined dramatically. The world’s top terror target protected itself. The city’s economy strengthened and diversified. Public schools got better by most measures. Public health improved thanks to a smoking ban, sanitation ratings in restaurants and more. Biking around the city got easier. Race relations, in too many ways rubbed raw under the eight years of Rudy Giuliani, advanced, notwithstanding the sharp rise (then drop) in stop and frisks.
But the mantle of no-nonsense managerial competence Bloomberg now claims for himself, and that many people seem to be buying because he’s also a billionaire businessman, glosses over some huge blunders.
On Aug. 18, 2007, a blaze broke out at the Deutsche Bank building downtown. Two firefighters who responded, Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, lost their lives. As Wayne Barrett meticulously documented in his report, in the weeks and months leading up to the tragedy, the city ignored glaring warnings.
As Barrett put it: “The docket of pre-fire municipal malfeasance starts with the collapse of inspectional regimes at the fire and buildings departments, which combined to miss a 42-foot breach in the bank building’s water-supplying standpipe for months, leaving firefighters without working hoses for more than an hour in what the Graffagnino family now calls a ‘death trap.’
“Though FDNY regulations require inspections of construction or demolition sites every 15 days, the department never inspected the bank building in the six months of work that preceded the fire. The Department of Buildings granted the project a commonplace alteration permit, the kind that is only supposed to be approved when a project ‘does not change’ a building’s use — precisely the opposite of what was planned at the Deutsche site. According to one subsequent law enforcement report, this unusual choice of permit ‘allowed the building to undergo concurrent abatement and demolition,’ a rare and risky venture.
There’s much more smoke and much more fire.
Bloomberg’s administration oversaw the adoption of an automated payroll system, spearheaded by private contractors at a company called SAIC, that was supposed to save the city tens of millions of dollars. The project wound up running more than $700 million over budget because it was riddled with bribes, kickbacks and corruption.
As the Daily News’ Juan Gonzalez recalled in 2012: “The envelope arrived in my mailbox one September day in 2009. No return address. No name. No note.
“Inside was a simple list with the names, hours and annual salaries of a dozen private computer consultants assigned to develop something called the CityTime payroll project. The lowest salary was an eye-popping $200,000; the highest was nearly half a million.
“That list started me probing and writing about CityTime. I soon uncovered hundreds of other consultants who were billing similar amounts to taxpayers — all for a project eight years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
“Criminal investigators launched their own probe. They later arrested 11 of the top consultants for systematic kickbacks and use of phantom workers. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara dubbed it the biggest and most brazen fraud in the city’s history. Last year, the project’s main contractor, SAIC, was forced to repay the city $500 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.”
A city contracting scandal of this scale would’ve derailed most mayors’ careers. Instead, for Bloomberg, it’s roughly as Iran-contra was to Reagan: a wrinkle in the carpet he stepped over on the way to a standing ovation.
When Bloomberg’s first schools chancellor retired, the mayor quickly tapped Cathie Black — a magazine executive with no experience in education who’d sent her own children to tony private schools — to lead the nation’s largest public school system at a tumultuous moment in its history.
She had no idea what she was doing, lasting just 95 days in the job. It’s actually astonishing she survived even that long.
The pick was arrogance incarnate, the perfect crystallization of the claim that education reformers, many of whom are actually dedicated people rightly trying to shake up an ossified and unresponsive system, are dilettantes with contempt for what it truly takes to help kids learn.
Mayor Bill de Blasio rightly gets a lot of criticism for the rising ranks of homeless people in city shelters and on the streets. But it was under Bloomberg that the problem exploded, with shelter populations rising 61% during his tenure, as rents rose sharply and affordable housing production failed to meet desperate need. Bloomberg’s cancellation of a key rent subsidy program contributed to the rising misery.
The city’s Housing Authority is an oft-cited de Blasio failure; it’s under him that the agency has a federal monitor. But most of what plagues NYCHA, from lead in paint to rodents to mold to failing elevators and boilers, got way worse on Bloomberg’s watch. Yes, a steep decline in federal funding had a lot to do with it. So did inattentive and ineffective leadership.
Greg Smith, who as a Daily News reporter blew the whistle on the de Blasio administration’s biggest management scandal, explained in The City how it was under Bloomberg that the agency started falsely certifying to federal authorities that they were performing required lead paint inspections.
Under Bloomberg, the use of force in the city’s jails spiked as the city failed to protect adolescent inmates at Rikers Island from excessive and unnecessary violence by correction officers. Federal prosecutors called it a systematic violation of teenagers’ civil rights.
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I’m not saying Bloomberg’s failures override his successes, only that he ought to be judged on the totality of his record.
Josh Greenman is a New York Daily News editorial page editor and oversees the paper’s op-ed page.