Mike’s Managerial Missteps

Illustration by Darrow

T he sun is shining and the horses are whinnying. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come to Pier 76, just off the West Side Highway, on a crisp Tuesday afternoon in March to open new stables for an NYPD mounted unit, and he’s downright giddy, his voice rising as he lists the features of the $8.7 million facility. “The four-legged members of Troop B needed a hayloft!” he exclaims. “As well as stalls! An equipment room, a heated exercise area, and their own shower!”

Clearly, Bloomberg is in need of a good day. The previous week, he’d spent consecutive nights in hospital emergency rooms, waiting anxiously into the early-morning hours with the relatives of four seriously injured cops, two of whom didn’t make it. Bloomberg spoke at funerals on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday came the official indictment of three cops in the shooting death of Sean Bell.

The next day, the mayor is eager to accentuate the positive. A tow pound had been transformed into an equine barn in six months, a rare feat when numerous city and state agencies are involved, to make way for construction of Hudson River Park. “When people say you can’t have it all, well, sometimes we can have it all, and I think this is one of those occasions,” the mayor effuses. “So we should all have big smiles on our faces!”

Alas, not for long. One reporter points out that the new stables are a temporary triumph, that the horses and cops will have to move again as the park expands. A Daily News reporter wants the mayor’s reaction to the paper’s series about child abuse on city school buses. The mood sours completely when the subject shifts to Sean Bell. Today at the stables is Bloomberg’s first public appearance since the indictments were announced. A reporter starts to ask if Bloomberg still believes the cops used excessive force, but he cuts her off. What about the Bell supporters who are angry that more cops weren’t indicted? “We’re a country of laws!” he says sharply. “The district attorney made his case to the grand jury, the grand jury has indicted three people, they will have their day in court, and justice will be served, whatever that is.”

The interrogation finally over, an aide reaches into a bag and hands Bloomberg a thick carrot to feed one of the horses. There’s a loud crack as the mayor snaps it in two.

For a mayor with such astronomical approval ratings, Bloomberg has had a surprisingly tough time of it lately. His clinical initial responses to the Con Ed blackout in Queens, the fiasco of school-bus reroutings, and the Bronx fire that killed ten members of two immigrant African families have been strung together to bash the mayor as a heartless technocrat. Bloomberg is plenty empathetic, just not in public, and anyone expecting him to reveal an inner Bill Clinton hasn’t been paying attention for the past six years.

But professional naysayers aren’t the mayor’s real problem, or the reason political momentum has started to shift away from him. What’s truly worrisome is that the mayor’s recent troubles are rooted in substance, not style. Management expertise is at the core of why he was hired in the first place, and why he was resoundingly reelected in 2005. And it is managerial stumbles that are threatening to turn his second term into a dud.

The mayor and his aides have a raft of impressive statistics to show that the city is in fantastic shape: Record-low unemployment! Highest bond ratings! Millions for school construction! All good. All important. Yet just below the numbers, where ordinary people actually live, is a growing disquiet. Unemployment is down, but to me one of the most haunting images of 2006 was the thousands of desperate people lined up in midtown hoping for a chance at a handful of jobs at the new M&M candy store in Times Square. Deaths of children “known” to the child-welfare system skyrocketed last year. The Sean Bell shooting has given a tragic face to long-standing complaints by black New Yorkers that they’re disproportionately the target of police stop-and-frisks. The sloppy, consultant-dictated scrambling of school-bus routes coalesced five years of irritation at the top-down reshufflings of the educational system. And the madman who shot and killed three people in Greenwich Village stirred worries that, despite all the charts showing crime at record lows, random violence is on the rise.

“I go to community meetings, and people say the city is safer than it’s ever been,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “All you have to do is look at the real-estate prices. They continue to go up. Though if you have enough of these [high-profile crimes], it could shift people’s opinions.” To Kelly’s credit, he’s undertaken a wide-reaching review of the NYPD’s training and tactics, and Bloomberg has endorsed hiring more cops.

Many second terms are hobbled by an exodus of key staffers. Nearly all the major players from Bloomberg’s first term—Kelly, development czar Dan Doctoroff, political strategist Kevin Sheekey, schools chancellor Joel Klein, budget director Mark Page—have stayed on. The list includes Linda Gibbs, who crafted sweeping overhauls of the child-welfare and homeless-shelter systems that are turning out to have serious flaws. For the second term, Bloomberg promoted Gibbs to deputy mayor for health and human services.

There’s no sadder illustration of the administration’s managerial weaknesses than the crisis of homeless families. In 2004, with much fanfare and good intentions, Bloomberg announced a plan to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds in five years. Instead, while the population of homeless single adults has declined, the number of homeless families has soared. The situation has been worsened by a Bloomberg program called Housing Stability Plus, which shrank payments to families living in subsidized units. The Coalition for the Homeless, among other groups, warned that HSP would be counterproductive but claims it was ignored. “There’s no interest in considering the viewpoint of anyone who has real experience on these issues,” says Mary Brosnahan, the Coalition’s director. “It’s arrogance. The heart of what was so appealing about Bloomberg in his first term was the top-down, no-politics style. But that’s turned out to be the best and brightest behind closed doors with no reality check.”

Bloomberg’s personal popularity hasn’t been dented yet. One recent survey, however, should alarm him: a Quinnipiac poll showing New Yorkers, by a 58 to 31 margin, in favor of taking control of the schools away from the mayor and giving it back to the Board of Education.

It’s impossible to believe there’s real nostalgia for the chronically inept and corrupt Board of Ed. What the poll numbers reflect, however, is widespread dissatisfaction with Bloomberg’s changes. Parents have watched their kids benumbed by endless standardized testing, with little to show for it in actual learning. Now all the hassles inflicted during five years of upheaval have congealed around January’s chaotic changes in school-bus routes. That same month, Bloomberg announced another round of organizational overhauls for the school system, which he says will distribute school funding more equitably and give greater autonomy to principals. “This is a mayor who doesn’t sit back and avoid the tough issues,” Sheekey says. “These are big, important changes to make the schools better. And this system has been broken for a long time.” But the lack of stability has fueled frustration. John Fager, an education writer, public-school parent, and high-school teacher, supported mayoral control of the system when Bloomberg pushed for it in 2002. He’s disappointed by what Bloomberg has done with it. “People talk about Bloomberg bringing corporate-style management to the schools,” Fager says. “Well, any corporation that underwent three major restructurings in five years would be bankrupt. We’re at a moment where the opposition has reached a critical mass.”

Mayoral control must be renewed by the State Legislature in 2009. That’s one reason the administration has pressed the state Department of Education to agree with the city’s definition of high-school graduation rates: The city counts 58 percent of its high-school students as graduating on time; the state says the correct number is 43 percent. Neither figure should be considered a victory. But allowing the schools to fall back under the sway of entrenched interests would be disastrous, and the mayor needs any positive numbers he can get to back up his actions.

Some of Bloomberg’s big second-term ideas, like his environmental-sustainability plan, remain to be fleshed out, and could lift his administration out of its sideways slide. Bloomberg has more than two years left in City Hall, which would seem plenty of time to turn things around. But the real calendar is significantly shorter. The race to succeed Bloomberg is already under way, and it won’t be long until a candidate, pandering to the teachers union, suggests diluting mayoral control, risking a return to the bad old days when special interests dominated the schools. And if Bloomberg secretly harbors any dreams of running for president, he should feel an extra sense of urgency about halting the second-term malaise. The accelerated 2008 presidential-primary schedule means the ideal time for Bloomberg to jump in would be about a year from now. Maybe the country would love him. But instead of hailing Michael Bloomberg as the greatest mayor ever, the city would remember him as a one-term wonder.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Mike’s Managerial Missteps