Whether or not you think “it’s time to move on,” the editorial included a sentence I cannot allow to go unchallenged. I have heard it before and it’s often repeated, but that doesn’t make it true; indeed, it is as false today as it was the first time it was uttered: “A real downzoning effort was never mounted.”
This is simply not accurate. A truer observation would have been: “No downzoning effort was ever allowed to be mounted,” or “City Planning, the agency in charge of such land use matters, refused to allow any downzoning effort.” Or my personal favorite, the one that most accurately reflects what actually happened: "In 2010, an attempt by then-Councilman Jim Oddo to have the property considered for a downzoning was summarily rejected by the agency."
And while I’m at it, let the record reflect that Mt. Manresa was NOT in my Council District. We attempted to address it because we foresaw the havoc that would be wreaked upon the community if it fell into the wrong hands. And so it did, and our worst fears were realized.
But as important as the Manresa issue has been and continues to be, a broader, subtler, yet more far-reaching concern is stirred up by the errant line in the editorial. That one misleading sentence amplifies, underscores and hardens the misconception held by every day Staten Islanders that most or all of these decisions – decisions which impact our daily lives in so many ways -- are made by, or directly determined by, Staten Island’s local elected officials.
If only we had such power!
We do not, and that is not the result of any dereliction of duty or lack of focus. Rather, it is a direct consequence of the form of government imposed upon New Yorkers via charter revision in 1989, which came in wake of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling that the Board of Estimate violated one person, one vote and was therefore unconstitutional. Those charged with the responsibility of picking a new city government structure chose what’s known as a “Strong Mayor“ model. Simply put, the Mayor runs his agencies as he sees fit, and they have an outsized role in the decisions that impact our lives.
Agencies typically make decisions that reflect the will, ideology, agenda, and priorities of their commissioners and the Mayor, an historically anti-outer-borough dynamic. Compounding the problem is a host of life-long agency civil servants who have long-since morphed into bureaucrats. No matter our approach, they heed no counsel but their own; they have lost all sense of urgency and no longer concern themselves with the implications of their actions -- or inactions, as the case may be.
As a result of this governmental model, we have essentially forfeited local decision-making on many fronts -- directly impacting our quality of life.
My problem with the falsehood in the editorial is that it implies that by working harder, or perhaps simply by fiat, a local elected official might have overcome this decision-making bureaucracy and began a rezoning of the Manresa property.
That is simply incorrect, and gives readers a decidedly cynical – though incorrect – view of their local elected officials and what they may accomplish. Yet, despite this rigged system and against long odds, we do sometimes win these fights, maybe even more often than we should. In fact, sometimes we win rather high stakes fights, like successfully pushing back against the waste-to-energy plant idea at Fresh Kills floated by the Bloomberg Administration late in their final term. But that, like the other battles we have won, was the result of figuring out a way to change the hearts and minds of the people with the power – not using some inherent charter mandated abilities of our local offices.
Frequently, our best efforts and most cogent arguments fall on deaf ears, and the public perception is that their local elected official is not delivering. Over a long period of time I have grudgingly come to accept that many Staten Islanders do not know or care about the actual, real-life decision-making process. While this is likely the case, it does not negate the fundamental point that a more informed populace provides Staten Island with an improved chance at winning future fights with city government.
Mistakes like the one in the editorial unwittingly and unintentionally undercut what should be our shared goal.
Now let me get to the most important point: we will continue our ongoing efforts to encourage more Islanders to achieve a basic understanding of the players and the processes of city government. Then, and ONLY then, do we have a fighting chance of changing, and/or impacting, this decision-making paradigm.
We created a portal on our StatenIslandUSA.com website that allows you to see everyone who works on our Borough Hall team, including their titles, responsibilities and ways to reach them. Just as importantly, if not more so, we also created a “transparency” page identifying local officials from the various agencies which impact our lives. Let’s be clear – most of these folks are often our allies and serve as our partners to effect changes in those agency decisions which we bemoan or simply do not understand. You can contact them at your will; here’s a link to a list of local agency personnel with whom we deal on a regular basis.
We think it’s great that you continue to communicate with us, and we encourage and facilitate that accessibility through our aggressive social media platforms. But we also think you should know and discuss these issues with the individuals that are at the heart of the decision-making process. Let’s start pushing harder for that grass roots, bottom up, local control decision-making that Staten lslanders have so longed for.
“A real down zoning effort was never mounted.” Let’s educate ourselves and enlighten each other so that we, collectively, might ensure a better, more responsive system, and that an erroneous line like this is never written again. Each and every one of you can be a force multiplier in our battle against an entrenched bureaucracy.
I look forward to having you fighting by my side.