Preening for Public Advocate

In the coming months, New Yorkers will be confronted by no

fewer than eight candidates for Public Advocate. While their campaigns will

give the impression that matters of great import are at stake, it might be

helpful to keep in mind that the office of Public Advocate is one of the city’s

bad jokes, a taxpayer-funded soapbox with an annual budget of $2.6 million and

no real power outside of attracting media attention. Self-Publicizing Advocate

would be a more apt description.

The office of Public Advocate is an afterthought, a job

retained in the post–Board of Estimate City Charter for no good reason. The

duties are so vague that just about anybody could perform them-and just about everybody

seems willing to do so. Which is why a busload of hopefuls are campaigning to

succeed the incumbent, Mark Green, who is running for Mayor. Several of the

candidates have never held elective office,

which tells you something about the job’s requirements. What is

frightening, however, is that the Public Advocate is first in line to succeed

the Mayor in the event of a vacancy. It is bad enough that we have

institutionalized an office made for amateurs; it is scandalous that we have

designated the person holding that office as the city’s heir-apparent.

Consider who’s running: Norman Siegel, former head of the

New York Civil Liberties Union, whose job consisted of suing the city and

ranting against any smart innovation. The idea of Mr. Siegel as next in line to

the Mayoralty is enough to demand that the next Mayor remain safely in his

office at all times, attended by a team of doctors and a food-taster. Then

there’s a collection of yesterday’s newsmakers and legislators, distinguished

by their desire for an impressive title and a nice office in the Municipal

Building. Betsy Gotbaum is a fine person, but do we really need a Parks

Commissioner from the David Dinkins era? West Side Assemblyman Scott Stringer

is a whiz at getting on the radio, but what has he ever done to deserve a

citywide platform? City Council members Kathryn Freed and Stephen DiBrienza are

smarter than most of their colleagues, but they’re only running because term

limits are forcing them out of the Council.

It would be best to retire the Public Advocate’s office,

spend the $2.6 million where it is truly needed, and let these candidates find

another way of advocating for the public. And if they want a soapbox, why don’t

they start a newspaper?

Safety, Sex and

Schools

Parents of the 1.1 million children who attend New York City

public schools have been alarmed by reports

that sexual attacks by students and school employees-which includes

grabbing and groping as well as sexual abuse and rape-are occurring at a rate

of 10 incidents per week, an increase of 13 percent over last year. New York’s

rate is double that of Los Angeles. The New York numbers, based on those

incidents deemed credible enough to turn over to the police, are cause for

concern, and demand an immediate response-but one must caution against panic.

Rather than indicating a sudden upswing in sexual misconduct, the new figures

are partly the result of better reporting and a refusal to allow misbehavior by

male students to be excused as simply adolescents being aggressive.

Keeping children safe is the priority. There is a proposed

law before the City Council that would require employees of public or private

schools who suspect that a crime has occurred to inform the police. This worthy

bill, supported by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy,

would cut out the middleman-namely the do-nothing education bureaucrats who

have often failed to inform the police of suspected crimes, with tragic

results. The most recent example is the case of a possibly H.I.V.-infected teacher

whose arrest on charges of sexually abusing two boys revealed prior allegations

of sexual misconduct that had not been pursued by the Board of Education.  

To bring about effective results, the police will need to

differentiate between offenses committed by students and those by teachers,

with appropriate strategies tailored to each. In the meantime, Mr. Levy and

Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik want to expand the school security force and

install video cameras. A more long-term safety measure would be to finally

overhaul the culture of public education in the city, and change the atmosphere

of low expectations that leaves many young men and women vulnerable to their

own worst instincts, and that protects incompetent and even criminal teachers.

Educational innovation has repeatedly been stifled by the teachers’ union, and

no Mayor or Schools Chancellor has yet been

able to summon the political clout to take on the union and the education

bureaucrats. Only when that happens will a sense of purpose and dignity be

restored to the public schools, and a higher standard of behavior and

accountability be instilled in students and faculty alike.

The Real Dinner Party

Eating dinner together as a family is often perceived as

something quaint and old-fashioned by many of New York’s two-career, type-A

households-sure, it would be nice, but it’s just not possible. Witness the

scores of cell-phone-packing teens one sees out and about the city during the

supper hour. But sitting down together for the evening meal is more than just

nice; research shows that children who eat regularly with their parents are

less likely to smoke, drink and take drugs.

As reported in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, a study sponsored

by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

found that dining as a family imparts values to children. “Eating dinner

together regularly as a family is an expression of parental caring and

influence in their children’s lives,” CASA president and former U.S. Secretary

of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano Jr. told the Monitor. And rather than having “the big talk”

about drugs or sexuality or school problems, dinners allow such topics to

surface naturally, and earlier, than they might otherwise.

Rather than trying to “create” healthy children through the

“right” schools and the “right” activities, New York parents may simply need to

buy a bigger dinner bell.