Comptroller John Liu, The People’s Frontrunner for NYC Mayor (Pt. Two)

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OTP: The case of the Central Park Five. Why hasn’t the city settled that?
Liu: For no good reason. It’s just stubbornness, perhaps an unwillingness to admit or confront the reality that a mistake was made. A really big mistake. It should be settled. I’ve offered all the resources of my office, the legal experts who conduct these settlements. Even my boardroom where they can sit around the clock and not leave without a settlement. It’s been ten years. There is no acceptable reason why there is no settlement. And the longer the time, the more it’s going to cost the taxpayers. It’s not going away. Let’s recognize that a mistake was made and settle to allow these men to move forward for the city to heal and put this behind us. It’s got to be done.
OTP: Where does the buck stop? What is the office or authority that’s saying, “No, we’re not going to go forward.”
Liu: The Corp. Counsel. The Corporation Counsel. Also known as the New York City Law Department. It’s in their hands because it’s in litigation. But at the end of the day, it’s my office that has to approve any settlement. We’re encouraging the settlement. Even though we can’t force the Law Department to come to a settlement, I’m encouraging them to do that. Their position right now just seems to be unreasonable, let’s move on.
OTP: Is this something that the mayor could step into?
Liu: The mayor can and the mayor should end this on his own. He still has eleven more months of his administration.
OTP: And if you were mayor?
Liu: Short of Mayor Bloomberg bringing closure to this, if I were in a position to do so, I would do it very rapidly.
OTP: I saw you had big ups from Alton Maddox, he was the attorney for one of the then-Central Park 7, and he was also the attorney for Tawana Brawley.
One of the panels in Jesse Jackson’s upcoming Wall Street Project is looking at “best practices for accomplishing parity in public procurement, construction projects and management of public pension funds. What would the best practices of a Liu Administration look like?
Liu: I’d like to think they’re already there. I am the steward of the public pension fund and we’ve vastly expanded the portfolio for minority- and women-owned managers. We’re up to about $8 billion, up from five-and-a-half billion when I first took office. So it’s a much larger piece of pie for minority managers to invest. The minority managers have invested and gotten good results so it makes sense for us to invest even more.
In regard to overall procurement, there has to be a change in attitude. For the last decade, there has not been any thrust or drive or motivation to ensure there was more minority participation in city contracts. Whether they be pension investment or construction or selling children’s clothing. There hasn’t been the drive for it. And you can see that in the shameful results. As comptroller, I’ve brought transparency to the actual spending with minority entrepreneurs when I first unveiled my MWBE report card; we were showing a paltry 2% of the city’s business going to minority entrepreneurs. It’s inching up. It’s now a little over 3%, which is still disgraceful.
There needs to be changes: first in attitude and some of the rules of procurement have to be updated. For example, some of the bonding requirements are too onerous for small businesses. The retainage, where the city keeps a certain amount of money from the business even after all the work is done, is also a killer for some of our small entrepreneurs. So there are rules that need to be changed but first and foremost there has to be a change in attitude. And that attitude has to have the direction from the top. The agencies tend to do what is easiest, the same old-same old. It’s always easiest to go back to the same suppliers over and over again. But then it’s hard for minority entrepreneurs to get their feet in the door.
You guys did a big story on what I did with the bond sales. Where the city rotated between big investment banks, and it was always the same investment banks so one time we had a billion-dollar bond sale, and instead of taking the next in line I said, “Let’s have a competition. Anybody who wants to sell these billion dollars worth of bonds should submit a proposal.” We got many more proposals than the companies that always take turns. We evaluated all of the proposals fairly. The four big banks, Citibank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, submitted their proposals, none of them were near the top. The firm with the top evaluation was a firm very few people had heard of. It turned out to be an African-American firm. But if we had done the same old, the usual bureaucratic approach and not change the process, then they never would have been able to compete. I saw the head of the company a year later at Reverend Jackson’s Wall Street Summit, and he said to me that because of the bond sale they increased their presence in New York City and hired an additional 75 people.
Not only do we level the playing field and this was not a giveaway they competed for the business. It shook up the big players who were getting a little too comfortable and created jobs for the city and the taxpayers were saved the most amount of money.
The more we diversify and expand our set of suppliers, including many more minority entrepreneurs, not only is it good for the entrepreneurs but it’s good for our taxpayers.
OTP: Technology has changed how people work so much. Folks are coming out of their apartments and running businesses sitting in cafes and parks. Working anywhere. How would a Liu Administration use the new technology to help reshape the city?
Liu: That’s a great question. I have a lot of ideas about how to use technology to enhance not only the workday but the ability of people to find work. We need to reduce unemployment disparities as well as reduce unemployment rates. I’ve called for the large telecommunication companies to provide free broadband to certain neighborhoods, where there is a certain percentage of people who are eligible for assistance. The “digital divide” actually separates people from economic opportunity. So that’s one we have to eradicate. So it’s not just someone’s ability to do their work, but also the ability to find work and retain work in the first place.
I’d like to make broadband universally available to everybody, and the economy will be stronger for it.
OTP: I saw where Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to come to terms with the teachers union about an evaluation process is going to cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. What is that about and how would you handle the whole evaluation situation?
Liu: The governor and the state legislature last year put in stipulations that all the school districts in the state of New York had to put in place a teacher evaluation system. By January 17th, 2013, 995 of the school districts in the state of New York made the deadline. New York City did not make the deadline and the reports are there was an agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the Department of Education and then at the eleventh hour, the mayor scuttled the deal and we lost out on a quarter of a billion dollars in school funding.
The mayor didn’t like the evaluation plan that had been agreed upon. He considered it a sham. I believe the mayor of the city should be fighting for every penny from the state and federal governments and not be an ideologue and forgo significant amounts of funding. It’s not the mayor’s responsibility to second-guess what the legislature, the governor, the state Education Department and what 99% of the other school districts were able to accomplish.

OTP: Your State of the City Address, what would you say were the main points?
Liu: I talked quite a bit about the wealth divide and how we need to correct that by growing the middle class by uplifting the working poor. Raising the city’s minimum wage to $11.50/hr. Which actually has a sound economic basis, it’s not a seemingly random number like other numbers that have been thrown out. I also talked about the need to increase the number of New Yorkers with college degrees. And one way to do that would be to offer free tuition to the top 10% of high school graduates in the city. I think that would be an extremely smart investment in the city’s future. We’re falling behind other major American cities in terms of the proportion of our population that have college degrees. In the 21st century economy, college degrees are almost a must at this point.
OTP: CUNY used to be free for everyone.
Liu: Yes and I would like to say, although it seems difficult over the next few years, I have an aspiration to restore the days of free CUNY tuition.
We need to enhance safety for communities across the city and that includes abolishing stop-and-frisk, which is a tactic I don’t believe works. And, in fact, harms communities by creating a deep rift between the police and the community they are responsible to protect.
OTP: Along with that, the stop-and-frisk, we see they have over $180 million in legal claims.
Liu: Yes, in fact, claims against the NYPD are growing faster and at this point are greater, than against any other city agency.
OTP: That $180 million sounds like a lot of money. That does not come out of the police budget does it?
Liu: No it doesn’t. It comes out of the general revenues.
OTP: So they’re held harmless in effect.
Liu: One of the recommendations I’ve made in the analysis of these claims is to have each agency responsible for their own claims cost. That way, if it hurts a little bit, we can align the interests a little better.