A Bensonhurst councilman on Wednesday introduced a bill to eliminate the watchdog position of Public Advocate, weeks ahead of a special election to fill the seat that the current officeholder will vacate to become the state’s next attorney general.
Councilman Kalman Yeger’s (D–Bensonhurst) legislation proposes letting voters decide via a future ballot referendum on whether to keep the office of Public Advocate, which Attorney General–elect Letitia “Tish” James will leave in January after besting three competitors in the race to become New York State’s top prosecutor earlier this month.
Yeger — the colleague of several Kings County pols who’ve already launched bids to replace James, including Flatbush Councilman Jumaane Williams — reportedly proposed the bill because he’d rather see the taxpayer dollars that now fund the office, which the city created in 1993, spent elsewhere.
“This is an experiment that’s literally been going on for about 30 years now, and I think it’s run its course,” the councilman told website Patch on Monday.
The Public Advocate is meant to serve as a check to city officials — such as when James, a former Fort Greene councilwoman, demanded the Landmarks Preservation Commission rescind its vote approving a controversial makeover of the neighborhood’s eponymous park last year. The officeholder can introduce legislation before Council, and participate in debates on bills, but cannot vote on them, according to the city charter.
James, whom voters reelected to a second four-year term last year, begins her new role as Attorney General on Jan. 1, after which the city charter requires Mayor DeBlasio to hold a special election to fill her seat no sooner than 45 days later.
The office of Public Advocate cannot be eliminated through legislation, however, which is why Yeger’s bill would put it up for a vote on a future ballot, according to his spokesman Jay Ackerman, who said there is no definitive timeline for when a referendum would appear should the bill pass.
Ackerman said that theoretically there could be a vote as early as November 2019, but that a referendum would more likely appear on the November 2020 general election ballot, meaning that whomever is elected to replace James will still serve in the office for a few years.
“The likelihood of a referendum election will be the November general election of 2020,” he said.
The city allocated some $3.6 million of its total $1.2-billion budget to fund the office for its current fiscal year, according to records, which show James took home a salary of just more than $184,000.
And James isn’t the only Public Advocate who has used the role as a stepping stone to higher office — Mayor DeBlasio held the position before voters elected him the city’s top pol in 2013, and the inaugural officeholder, former Public Advocate Mark Green, ran an unsuccessful 2001 mayoral campaign against Michael Bloomberg, who won the election that year.
But critics who claim the office is merely a way to collect a check while boosting one’s resume are ignoring its importance, according to Williams, who said the position should be strengthened, not eliminated.
“The Public Advocate was not created to be a stepping stone or a launch pad, it was designed to be a vital watchdog for issues that New Yorkers are struggling with every day while holding government accountable,” he said. “It seems odd to me that the answer to the watchdog not being strong enough isn’t to empower more but to eliminate it.”
Williams — who in September lost a primary bid to become the Democratic nominee for New York State Lieutenant Governor to incumbent Kathy Hochul, but won 6,000 more votes than Hochul within the five boroughs — is one in a group of ten likely candidates to succeed James.
That group includes other Brooklyn electeds such as Councilmen Robert Cornegy (D–Bedford-Stuyvesant) and Rafael Espinal (D–Bushwick), who with Williams spoke to voters at a Monday forum for Public Advocate hopefuls hosted by advocacy group the Progressive Action Network, whose leaders endorsed the Flatbush pol following the event.