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
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.