Thursday, June 11, 2009

Two Mayoral Candidates Discuss Visions for City

Bloomberg a No Show at Forest Hills Civic Meeting

By Conor Greene

The two Democratic candidates for mayor, Comptroller Bill Thompson and Councilman Tony Avella, told residents that the city needs a change in leadership in order to protect the interests of average New Yorkers at a civic meeting in Forest Hills Tuesday night.

The two men used the forum at the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association meeting to tell residents about their experience in public service and their plans if elected mayor. The race’s frontrunner, incumbent Michael Bloomberg, declined the civic group’s invitation to attend due to scheduling issues but said he would try to attend a meeting in the fall, according to FHCCA President Barbara Stuchinski.

Councilman Avella Calls for Change

Avella was first to speak, and Stuchinski introduced the Bayside councilman as a “great guy” who for “many, many years has always been involved in the communities” and is” “not looking for personal esteem. He really is a person to be admired.”

Avella, who declined to run for a third term on City Council after term limits were amended last year, said he started out as a “civic activist… helping to address local problems” in northern Queens. He was chief of staff to a number of elected officials before being elected to the City Council in 2002. “Being a community activist means knowing with the community expects, needs, and desires,” he said. “We’ve lost control over our own city government.”

One of the top priorities is stopping overdevelopment and taking neighborhoods back from politically-connected developers, said Avella. “It’s about time we start paying attention to the unique character and charm of every single neighborhood.” Ensuring that the zoning matches the area’s character will help prevent overdevelopment, he argued. Instead of city planning officials and the real estate industry controlling the agenda, Avella wants residents to have a say over their neighborhood. “Nobody knows their block better than the people who live there,” he said.

On education, Avella said that it was clear in 2002 that the Department of Education had to be revamped. However, “Michael Bloomberg made a major mistake” by not reaching out to stakeholders such as parents and teachers. Instead, he hired Chancellor Joel Klein, who is “running it like a business… I’m not saying you throw money at the DOE, but you cannot equate the all mighty dollar with advances in education.”

He noted that while the Bloomberg administration has recently touted gains made in statewide testing, nationwide tests show “absolutely no improvement in the eight years Michael Bloomberg has had control... All we do is teach to the test – we’re not educating kids, we’re just teaching them to adjust.” One of the first things Avella would do if elected is fire Klein, who he called a “disaster.”

Avella hammered home one of his main messages: that the city needs a “philosophical change” in the way residents and government interact. “If we want to have a better city, we all need to be involved… I don’t have all the answers – I want to listen to you,” he said.

He has also taken steps to “restore people’s faith in elected officials,” including voting against the pay raise that the City Council voted to give itself, and rejected the “lulu” politicians receive for chairing committees. In addition, he “fought like hell” against the mayor’s successful push to overturn term limits, and declined to seek reelection to his Council seat. “Whether you like term limits or not, what he did was an absolute disgrace,” he said. “The only way to overcome the terrible blow [to voters] is to vote them out of office.”

He also said that despite the wide disparity between the candidates fundraising, money shouldn’t determine who is elected. “In the end it shouldn’t be about money – it’s about people,” he said. “I’m not selling my soul. My donations are coming from people like you.”

When asked about potential funding cuts to libraries, community boards and the FDNY, Avella said it comes down to priorities. He wants to provide community boards with more power instead of reducing their funding and wants libraries open seven days a week, instead of cutting hours as is being threatened under the proposed budget. To do this, he would eliminate wasteful spending in other areas, including education. “The waste is unbelievable,” he said of city agencies.

“If you don’t want change, elected Mike Bloomberg… elect my Democratic opponent, because you are going to get the same nonsense,” said Avella, who promised “major reforms” if elected.

Comptroller Thompson Makes His Case

Thompson began by providing insight into his background, beginning with his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mother was a city school teacher and his father was a former senator and judge. “I grew up in a household that believed in community service,” he said. “It is important to help the community you live in.”

He recalled his own 2001 run for comptroller, which was his first run at elected office. “I wasn’t supposed to win,” he said, as his opponent was chair of the City Council finance committee and greatly outspent Thompson. “In the end, I was able to put together people all across the city who believed in what I did.”

Thompson also made an effort to inform the crowd about the work he has done as city comptroller. He said that it became clear the MTA was operating using “two sets” of books during recent budget negotiations. “That’s the work I did,” he said of exposing that situation. “I knew they were lying… and went in and looked at the books.”

On term limits, Thompson stressed that it was always his intention to run for mayor and says the matter should have been brought back to the people for another referendum. “We know in the end he didn’t,” said Thompson, referring to Bloomberg.

After the City Council voted to allow officials to seek a third four-year term, Thompson continued with his mayoral bid “after looking at the things going on around us” such as the plan to close and consolidate local senior centers. “They pulled that back because of the election,” said Thompson, predicting that Bloomberg will continue with that plan if he is reelected.

He also criticized Bloomberg for charging homeless families rent to stay in city run shelters, which makes it harder for them to save enough to secure permanent housing. He also noted that water rates have risen 13% this year and a staggering 58% in the past four years. “You’re being overcharged,” he said. It’s almost a backdoor property tax.”

Another example of the city’s attempt to “squeeze more and more each year” out of middle class New Yorkers was the proposal to put tolls on the free East and Harlem river bridges. He said that 60% of those affected by this plan are Brooklyn and Queens residents. “Middle class New Yorkers… are going to be pushed out of this city,” he warned.

Despite the disparity between his fundraising efforts – which have netted about $6 million so far, compared with Bloomberg’s seemingly bottomless self-financed campaign war chest – Thompson said he “believes” he has a real shot at victory in November. He referred to a recent poll that showed that only 40% of respondents want Bloomberg to serve a third term.

“They realize that Michael Bloomberg is not there for the people of the city… He is there for a few of his wealthy friends.” He noted that Bloomberg opposed tax increases for the wealthy and says his opponent is spending upwards of $100 million “to try to convince you that he’s a different person than he’s been for the past eight years… After eight years, we know who Michael Bloomberg is. During these tough times, we can’t afford to have him back again as mayor.”

Other issues Thompson touched on included diversifying the city’s economy to reduce the dependant on Wall Street. One way to do that is to fully reinstate the tax credits formerly provided to the film industry. The city and state tax credit directly and indirectly led to 100,000 jobs, however many companies left the city after the credits dried up last year. While some money has been put back into that fund, it is set to expire in 2011.

Thompson said he believes in mayoral control of schools, but with some changes, including giving parents involvement and strengthening the powers of local Community Education Councils. He also wants an independent agency to assess how the city is doing in areas such as drop out and graduation rates and test scores. “They’re playing with the numbers,” he alleged. He called the DOE “the most fiscally irresponsible agency in the world.” Under a contract between the DOE and a vendor that Thompson recently rejected, the city was going to be “overpaying on almost everything by 10%,” he said.

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