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A Town Hall Meeting with Comptroller John Liu

Comptroller John Liu talked to the Slope at a recent Town Hall meeting in the neighborhood.

I had no idea a Comptroller could be so sexy.  

Maybe I was expecting a more "Budgets for Dummies" forum where Mr. Liu would speak very slowly and define “assets” and “deficits.”  Truth be told, I had never attended a Town Hall meeting with a Comptroller before.

Still, Mr. Liu was so animated, enthusiastic, in control of his facts, I half expected him to say, "I'm not a Comptroller, but I play one on TV..." He appeared at the Prospect Park Residence on Wednesday night for a mini-Town Hall meeting in the Slope.

I try to keep on top of things. I do. But with most of my time devoted to the USDA's recent Canada Geese killing spree from here to Timbuktu (Well, from New York State to Alabama, Wisconsin, New Jersey and more) based on alleged “air safety concerns” (bird strikes actually account for .068% of airplane incidents), my attention to New York City's other issues has been peripheral, at best.

I did not know, for example, that it was Mr. Liu who effectively rejected the Board of Education's proposed $20 million contract to hire outside consultants in the midst of the City's teacher lay-off crisis. 

I did not know that the Board of Education, in an effort to obviscate the proposal, used an automated system that allowed for smaller amounts (under $1 million, possibly less) to go through a separate approval process un-noticed.  In fact, the Board submitted the proposal in three separate and equal amounts on the same date. I asked Mr. Liu if this made him laugh and he smiled, "Laugh or cry, I'm not sure which."

Wow! A playful quip along with mastery of numbers and priorities?  Seriously?  That was a "wow," for me, anyway. Impressive.

I spoke with Liu’s press officer, Scott Sieber, who explained that the Comptroller’s office was helping to provide full disclosure and government accountability via his website.

Through this website, anyone can find:

1) An on-line application to request a city audit

2) “Checkbook NYC” – Showing an almost real-time record of the city’s expenditures

3) “Clearview NYC” – Full disclosure of all NYC contracts

I was amazed. 

When Mr. Liu fielded Q&As, I mentioned my love for Prospect Park, but my concern for its budgeting priorities.  I explained the $74 million dollars allocated to the new lakeside center while basic maintenance, park enforcement and wildlife education is almost nil. I explained that, as a wildlife rehabilitator, I was concerned about the discarded tackle and bait that already have been reported painfully ensnaring our baby swans and ducks. And the recent incident where one of our hard-shell inhabitants (a turtle) was found with a nail driven through the center of its shell. I suggested that having basic park maintenance and clean up as well as enforcing the “no harassment of wildlife” policy posted on the park’s own website seemed more critical than a $74 million ice skating rink to replace the old Wollman skating rink.

It was a surprise and relieved to see Mr. Liu's genuine concern. Rather than wave me off and offer a quick, packaged political answer, he actually spoke about the question of "concessions.”  I had never considered the possibility that public parks might have any restrictions or rules in relationship to concessions. When it seemed clear the Mr. Liu’s office might consider an audit of the Park’s budget and management, I did not jump out of my seat and let out a squeal, though I wanted to.

, Founder of Prospect Park’s “Goose Watch” and Brooklyn resident asked whether a contract—specifically the City’s Canada Geese extermination contract with the USDA’s “Wildlife Services”—could be rejected by the Comptroller based on its merits. He asked if it was possible to challenge contracts in place. 

Mr. Liu said, in effect, “Absolutely!” (See video uploaded along with this post).  It seemed clear that Mr. Karopkin was interested in pursuing and the Comptroller’s office was taking time, after the meeting, to explain the steps and protocols involved with the auditing process.

One of the senior residents raised her hand and was called on by Jorge Fanjul, Deputy Director, Public Affairs.

“Yes, the young lady in the second row,” which produced a blush.  Before long, the woman regained her composure and began a tirade against the “billions of dollars in uncollected taxes.” 

“Are you going to go after these people? These companies?"  She shouted, “Are you?! I mean are you?!”

At this point, Mr. Liu very adroitly explained the differing responsibilities between his office and the Attorney Generals.  His job, he explained, was to identify the issues, at which point other agencies could take action. The woman seemed encouraged by the answer, almost pleased.

Talk about charter schools and budget cuts in education were the meat and potatoes of the meeting. Or the tofu and potatoes, if you don’t mind my veganism.  Mr. Liu was very proud of coming up through the New York City Public School system and a proud father of his son, a sixth grader also in public school.  It was clear that he more than understood the plight of the several concerned mothers in attendance.

I left the meeting feeling inappropriately hopeful, I know. There is no magic wand.  But everyone in attendance had that same twinkly feeling.  When I got home I read an article announcing that six million dollars was going to be used to Prospect Park’s baseball fields.  It didn’t surprise me. The teams have to pay to play.

Six million dollars, to spruce up ball fields that seem to be just fine as they are while there still aren’t enough cans to be found.  People bringing their own big green garbage bags and leaving them in the middle of the walk ways.  I thought about “my nyc” and, well, you know…

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Mitchel Cohen July 15, 2011 at 02:41 PM
Great report, Johanna! Hopefully, the Comptroller will take a good look at the City's contracts to procure mobile gas chambers to slaughter the geese! Whose bright idea was that? How much did it cost the city? Where is the Environmental Impact Statement? Thanx for your engaging story, and hard work! One question: "obviscate"? "Obfuscate" (meaning to intentionally cloud understanding) or "Obviate" (meaning "to dispense with", as in "The Comptroller's investigation of the City's contract to gas the geese would obviate the need to sue to see the contracts under the Freedom of Information Act.) Mitchel Cohen Brooklyn Greens/Green Party
Parksloper July 15, 2011 at 03:06 PM
Govt accountability? Ha. Did anyone ask Liu when he was going to be accountable for the over $500,000 he owes in fines from the sanitation dept. for illegally plastering his campaign posters all over the city? De Blasio and Bill Thompson also owe hundreds of thousands.
Johanna Clearfield July 15, 2011 at 03:07 PM
Thanks for checking out the blog, Mitch -- Yes, sorry -- "obfuscate" was the correct word -- I wasn't able to correct that before the post went final - once it's final, it's "cooked." Intentionally cloud, yes -- that's the ticket!
Johanna Clearfield July 15, 2011 at 03:11 PM
Parksloper, have you heard the expression, "Frivolous fines?" There are still debates over whether the first amendment protects campaign flyering -- and debates about whether it is an infringement to fine people who put up campaign flyers -- From my point of view, that should be a first amendment right. Could it be that is the reason that money is not yet paid? The police in NYC will ticket pregnant women for sitting on subway steps and they will ticket people who are double parked for literally 30 seconds while they run in to pick up a drug prescription. I'm more concerned about the billions of dollars in tax breaks Mr. Bloomberg is affording the wealthiest of the wealthy (developers) in our fine town. I believe that was the "will you go after them?! Will you?" meaning of the woman's comments at the meeting.

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