Gold Standard: Council needs insitutional amnesia, not knowledge

When City Council President Anna Verna recently defended the possible hiring as a consultant of her recently retired long-term budget aide, Charles McPherson, she cited the need for preserving "institutional knowledge."

She articulated perfectly the problem with Council. Too focused on the past rather than the future.


You'd think the last thing Council needs to worry about is institutional knowledge. Start with Verna herself, who's served on Council since 1976. Together, the 17 members have more than 250 years of institutional knowledge. Frankly, taxpayers would benefit if Council suffered a good dose of amnesia and had to do some fresh thinking, including about how it conducts its budget process.

There would be no better place to start than public safety, the cost of which is strangling the city. More than one out of every two city employees (more than 12,000) work in a public-safety agency - police, courts, prisons, D.A.'s office, sheriff's office or clerk of Quarter Sessions.

Clinging to institutional knowledge, Council holds individual hearings for each department as if the crime problem and its ever-increasing cost can be departmentalized.

So one day it's the prisons' turn to testify, the next day the police, the day after that the D.A., then the sheriff and the courts. Ships passing in the night.

The fact is, these departments are interrelated. Rather than track them separately, why not have them at the budget table together? Let them address what they're doing in a collaborative manner to not only reduce crime, but fight it in a more cost-effective manner.

Individually, each department will cite a need for more resources. But if the courts are at the table with the prisons and D.A., you might be able to talk about bail and whether too many defendants spend unnecessary pretrial time in prison because it's inappropriately high. Or perhaps you could get a discussion of whether the sheriff, whose personnel provide security in the courtrooms, needs so much staff when there are already a slew of cops sitting around waiting to testify.

The issue of police overtime is another example of interdependence. The police bear the brunt of courtroom overtime costs even though some of the problem is created by the D.A.'s office (which may subpoena too many cops) and judges (who allow too many continuances, requiring officers to reappear again and again).

If Council could forget institutional knowledge, perhaps it could require the police, courts and the D.A. to come to the table together and explain how they collectively will reduce court overtime.

In fact, the possibilities for collaborative action are numerous if Council can focus more on stimulating creative problem-solving by expanding the number of participants at its budget table.

With the recent election to Council of Bill Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Curtis Jones - the so-called Freshman Three - there's been a whiff of fresh air in the chamber.

Less steeped in institutional knowledge, these new members are asking pertinent questions, attacking conventional wisdom, probing and prodding administration officials.

Some question Green's bedside manner, and I'm sure I'd have bristled under his onslaught of questions when I was managing director, but his points are relevant. (Disclosure: I worked for his father the mayor 30 years ago.)

And tough questioning is needed when the administration's answer to the city's financial problems rests on a new tax and huge trash fee with little change in the structure or size of government.

Since the Nutter administration took office, the city's full-time workforce, according to a recent payroll report, dropped only 2.3 percent during the worst economic conditions in 70 years, with much of that reduction coming from departments not under the mayor's control, most notably the court system.

If we want better solutions, we need to ask tougher questions and set higher goals. Rather than gloat about recent savings in the prison system, why not set a goal of actually closing one of the city prisons in two years, and have the various agencies figure out how to do that without jeopardizing public safety?

Rather than just calling for a 25 percent cut in crime, as Mayor Nutter did, we can ask the Police Department to come up with a plan to reduce its size, as well as crime. It can be done. New York City has reduced both - dramatically.

Phil Goldsmith writes "The Gold Standard" column for It's Our Money. He was city managing director from 2003-2005.