Even if you pay only the slightest attention to city politics, you surely have seen those print advertisements from City Council members wishing you holiday greetings or saluting your heritage. The advertisements, which often run in the ethnic press or in neighborhood newspapers, generally feature photographs of the well-wisher along with his or her name in conspicuously large type.
As an exercise in self-promotion, the ads are pretty cheesy. But the real story has nothing to do with taste. It’s all about arrogance.
According to a new report by the Citizens Union, a nonpartisan civic group, many of these advertisements are paid for by the taxpayers. The Citizens Union found that council members spent about $780,000 in public money from 2002 to 2006 for ads that have no purpose other than self-promotion. Unless, that is, you can make the case that our holidays and ethnic celebrations just wouldn’t be the same without an official greeting from the local council member.
This may be more than just another case of wasteful or just plain stupid spending by the Council. It may be illegal—the City Charter, in a laudable effort to reduce the advantages that incumbent politicians enjoy, prohibits municipal elected officials from promoting themselves with government money during an election year. The most recent municipal elections were in 2005, meaning that any ads that ran from Jan. 1 of that year until election day may have violated the charter.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean there will be a perp walk outside City Hall any time soon. The charter also stipulates that government money can be used for communications between elected officials and constituents. You can be sure that the miscreants will argue that these ads are part of their constituent outreach.
Nevertheless, Council Speaker Christine Quinn says she will support a plan to crack down immediately on this raid on the public treasury. She told The New York Times that she will propose an outright ban on holiday greetings, messages of congratulations and other puffery. That’s a good first step—but proposing such measures is one thing, passing them is another. Let’s see if the Council goes along with the speaker’s reform plan.
It may not be so easy. One council member, Joseph Addabbo of Queens, continues to insist that these ads are an important part of his service to constituents. “To wish them well for some holiday is just part of it,” he told The New York Times. “It reminds them of who their Council members are.”
Well, here’s an idea: If Mr. Addabbo and his colleagues believe their constituents need to be reminded “of who their Council members are,” they should by all means continue to take out advertisements celebrating ethnic and religious holidays and other special events.
But they should pay for the ads with campaign funds raised from private sources. We’d soon see just how urgent these messages really are.