Can Quinn Quiet Doubts?

Christine Quinn is facing a leadership crisis that will test her ability to transfer the enormous goodwill and excellent reputation she has built up as City Council speaker to a viable run for mayor next year.

As the New York Post first reported, for several years the Council has been appropriating millions of taxpayer dollars for fictitious organizations during budget negotiations, and then later spending that money on various community groups and programs—thereby circumventing the mayor’s right to approve or deny the funds. Investigations by the United States attorney’s office and the city’s Department of Investigation will determine if the money ended up in the hands of worthy organizations, as Ms. Quinn says she believes it did. Even if the final accounting shows the funds were eventually spent on legitimate items, however, that should not blunt the outrage over elected officials creating dummy organizations to mask their own agendas.

The speaker says that she had been unaware of the practice and was “deeply troubled” when she found out about it last spring, and ordered her office to stop it. Last fall, she says, when she learned her finance staff had not, in fact, ended the dubious practice, she promptly contacted investigators.

That’s all well and good. But why didn’t Ms. Quinn immediately bring this shell game to the public’s attention? After all, the speaker doesn’t work for the U.S. attorney’s office or the Department of Investigation; she works for the New York City taxpayer, and thus her first responsibility, when learning that tax dollars are being shuffled around behind closed doors, is to call a press conference and inform the public right away. The investigators would have followed up in due course, and Ms. Quinn would have been hailed as a whistle-blower, in keeping with her message of reform.

The Council has long been viewed as a parochial, political and insular legislature. Since assuming her post in 2006, Speaker Quinn has been a forceful and effective advocate for opening up the Council’s deliberations, making its processes more transparent, and cracking down on pork projects. She has created a strong and compelling platform from which to launch an expected mayoral bid in 2009. Furthermore, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this week he has complete trust in Ms. Quinn, whom he calls “the most honest person I know.”

Christine Quinn’s real problem with the current mess is not so much ethical as managerial: We trust she will explain to voters how it came to be that her own senior staff apparently ignored her orders last spring to put an end to the budget con game. Being highly qualified to be mayor doesn’t mean much if, once in City Hall, you can’t get your own people to implement your reforms.