John Liu Says It’s All Business

Asked to predict what sort of working relationship he’d have with Michael Bloomberg over the next four years, the incoming city comptroller talked about physics.

“An electromagnetic force,” he said, “it’s unlike gravity. Gravitational force is only one direction, it’s an attractive force. Electromagnetic forces can be attractive or repulsive.”

That’s John Liu’s approach, for now.

As a two-term councilman from Flushing, Mr. Liu aligned himself with the mayor on some issues (congestion pricing) and opposed others (extending term limits, East River tolls).

Mostly, he seemed to regard the administration as a particularly capable adversary.

Recalling the way the city’s budget director admitted to using money squirreled away for heath care costs to help plug the city’s budget problems, Mr. Liu pronounced it clever, if not precisely kosher.

“I give him credit for discovering the budget stabilization account,” Mr. Liu said, referring to the budget director, Mark Page. “That, that was really a stroke of genius. How they got away with it, I’m not sure. But it works.”

As he said this, seated in a diner across from a reporter, Mr. Liu was laughing. But two weeks earlier, immediately after he won a run-off primary election against a fellow outgoing councilman, David Yassky, Mr. Liu had sent a signal of his attitude, if not his intentions, by publicly rebuffing a post-election request by the mayor’s office to sit down for a coffee.

Not relevant, he says now.

“I just, I don’t have any basis to compare what my administration in the comptroller’s office will be,” he said, between bites of a hamburger. (“Medium rare. And tell him not to press down on it, O.K.?”) “The entire focus right now is on finding the best professionals who I will rely upon on a day-to-day basis to run the core functions of the office.”

“Nobody elected me on the basis of what my relationship could be or would be with whoever is in the mayor’s seat,” Mr. Liu said. “I don’t know why people keep asking that. But, to answer, the mayor has a tough job, huge amounts of responsibilities, and I will strive to work closely with the mayor and any other elected official here in New York.”

At this point, Mr. Liu’s spokesperson, Sharon Lee, said, “On the campaign, you did talk about how you would be an effective counterbalance if necessary.”

“Yeah,” said Mr. Liu, “because that is what the comptroller’s office’s job is, by charter. It’s not about specific individuals. That’s just what the charter responsibilities are.”

While Mr. Liu cites the charter as a way of personally detaching himself from the politics surrounding his new job, he is embracing the job in a way that his more affable predecessor, Bill Thompson, may not have. And Mr. Bloomberg’s call this week to cut $1.75 billion from the budget isn’t going to keep Mr. Liu from finding beans to count.

“There are always efficiencies to be found,” said Mr. Liu.

As for those “no-bid contracts,” Mr. Liu said the city issues “a couple of hundred million dollars” of them each year. And he wants to look at them.

The mayor announced last year that he would no longer dispense money from his little-known discretionary fund, which is, as Mr. Liu described it, just one example of a widespread practice of no-bid contracting. 

“There’s always going to be more of that,” said Mr. Liu. He added, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out a contract hasn’t been competitively bid.”

Mr. Liu said he’d take an “expansive” view of his powers, not just focusing on contracts entered into without a competitive bidding process.

“I wouldn’t limit it to sole-source contracts,” he said. “Other contracts, too, if it’s not clear what kind of procedure were followed. And I wouldn’t use the word ‘hold up.’ I’d just have a lot more questions that need to be answered.”

  John Liu Says It’s All Business