Tish James Renews Public Advocate’s Legislative Role

Public Advocate Tish James during a Januaryy council meeting. (Photo: Official NYC Council/William Alatriste.)

Public Advocate Tish James during a January council meeting. (Photo: Official NYC Council/William Alatriste.)

She may no longer be a city councilwoman, but Public Advocate Tish James remains one of the body’s most active members.

In her less than three months on the job, Ms. James has put her mark on more than a dozen pieces of legislation, including three she introduced herself, according to an analysis of City Council records by the Observer. That’s as many as her predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, introduced in the last three years of his four-year tenure combined, the records show.

Ms. James, who used to represent central Brooklyn, has also maintained a highly-visible role in the body, asking questions of commissioners during committee hearings and presiding over stated meetings in the Council Chamber from a regal, red plush chair marked with a giant star.

“In my former life, as you know, I was pretty active in the City Council and wanted to maintain that position as a public advocate. And I think what I was noticing was that the Office of Public Advocate was sort of acting in its own separate silo from that of the City Council and I wanted to merge the two,” said Ms. James in an interview yesterday, noting that she was running late for an afternoon hearing on employment protections in city contracts.

“So if you’ve been noticing over the nine weeks that we’ve been in office I’ve been very involved in the City Council and will continue to do that,” she added. “I wanted to make sure that there was not a disconnect and really wanted to use this office to influence legislation, to craft legislation, to enact legislation as well as policy discussions in the City of New York.”

One of the few concrete powers of the obscure Public Advocate’s Office is the ability to introduce legislation. According to her office and the City Charter, Ms. James is technically an “ex-officio” member of the council and its committees and can participate in hearings–but not vote. So far, records show, she has personally introduced three bills: one that would force the city’s police department to report the arrests of individuals under the age of 18, one that would require the collection of data about young people aging out of foster, and one forcing new signage at job centers, SNAP centers, and Medicaid office–just a handful of the “at least 20 bills” she said she’s in the process of bringing forward.

She’s also signed onto 12 other proposals, including one that would rename the Washington Bridge after David Dinkins, one that would require all community boards to webcast their full board meetings, and another that would slap a 10-cent fee on all grocery store plastic bags. That total is more than half of the 23 bills that Mr. de Blasio signed onto during his entire four-year term.

Most of the bills, she stressed, were intended to serve larger functions, like providing data to inform policy in areas like affordable housing construction and charting where homeless shelters are being built, how well buildings are being maintained and where vacant property is located.

Mr. de Blasio successfully shepherded through just two bills in his four-year term: one in relation to landlord penalties for failing to provide heat and hot water and one pushing recycling in city schools.

Ms. James declined to comment on Mr. de Blasio’s record in the office–“I don’t know anything about his schedule,” she said–but nonetheless suggested the council and public advocate’s office had operated too independently before she arrived.

“The City Council was doing legislation and policy discussions and the office of public advocate, for the most part, was just doing recommendations and not in fact involved in actually affecting any recommendations. And this is since the office has been created,” she said. “And clearly what I wanted to do was move that wall of separation.”

Some of the change may have to do with how the council is run. Back in 2002, a charter revision determined that the speaker of the City Council would decide who should presides over council meetings. While former Speaker Christine Quinn chose the majority leader, her successor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, chose the public advocate, according to council sources.

Mr. de Blasio, who also came to the job of public advocate after serving as a local Brooklyn councilman, appears to have had an aggressive legislative agenda when he arrived in office at 1 Centre Street in 2010. During his first year on the job, he introduced 22 bills–including five by this time that year–two of which eventually passed. They included efforts to ban the use of polystyrene foam food packaging, a push for the MTA to adopt a Subway Riders Bill of Rights and a resolution calling on the city’s Department of Education to install hand sanitizer-dispensing machines in all public school classrooms.

His pace, however, quickly slowed, with Mr. de Blasio serving as the primary sponsor on just three bills in the years that followed, with none in 2011, one in 2012 and two in 2013. Mr. de Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his legislative record in his previous gig.

Ms. James has also spent the past three months getting her office up and running. She now has approximately 20 staff members divided into four wings: a policy office, a legislative office, an ombudsman office and “a much more fully-staffed legal team” which has been working with legal advocates in the city, including Legal Services and Legal Aide, Ms. James said. The office now employs four full-time attorneys, including one focused exclusively on legislation, in addition to a number legal interns, her spokeswoman said.

Mark Green, the city’s first public advocate, who lost a bitter race to Mr. de Blasio in 2009, said the legislative role of the office was key, but that its role as an ombudsman and its oversight of agencies were crucial as well.

“I found the legislative role to be the second or third-most important function to the oversight/investigation aspect of this charter-mandated office,” said Mr. Green, who said that Mr. de Blasio seemed to focus his tenure more on organizing communities around the city than passing bills.

Still, he said that what mattered most was not how many bills an official shepherded, but the quality of that legislation.

“The issue should be: Has she proposed things that are different and add value,” he said, adding that it’s still too early to judge Ms. James.