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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg's Information Double Standard

April 10, 2012

For City Hall, 2 Standards on the Public’s Right to Know

As a champion of open government, leader in reform through transparency and all-around tribune of the people, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has given full support to a campaign to make public the evaluations of about 18,000 teachers.
The public’s right to know, the Bloombergians say, outweighs the flaws in the evaluation system, which had wide margins of error and is being replaced.
Simultaneously, acting in what he calls the “public interest,” Mr. Bloomberg has fought hard to keep secret a continuing evaluation of the 911 system, which is rumored to be critical of the operation after the city spent $2.1 billion to overhaul it.
In this case, Mr. Bloomberg maintained that the public was better off not seeing a draft of a report that he commissioned after the December 2010 snowstorm, when the city couldn’t keep streets cleared and ambulances got stuck in the snow while critically ill people waited for help.
The draft report is said to be nearly 300 pages, and two Fire Department unions have been trying to get it as part of a grievance they have brought against the city. Mr. Bloomberg said it wouldn’t be right to release it without additional fact-checking.
“You can’t take a working paper where no one’s really checked the facts and just put it out,” the mayor said on his radio show on Friday morning. “Because all of a sudden, everybody believes that’s the truth. When we have a final report, we’ll get it out there.”
That the report existed in any form was a point of contention in hearings on the labor grievance, Joshua Zuckerberg, a lawyer representing the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, told a state judge on Monday.
The unions, Mr. Zuckerberg said, “have been requesting this report for months; first we were told that the city had no idea what we were talking about.”
Later, as witnesses referred to the report during testimony, the unions again asked for it. Finally, a judge issued a subpoena, and the matter ended up in court when the city refused to turn it over on the grounds that, as Caswell F. Holloway, a deputy mayor, said in an affidavit, “candor in self-examination will be chilled and the ability of policy makers to carry out effective reform will be curtailed.”
In front of the judge, Mr. Zuckerberg charged that the city lawyers were having a hard time keeping the story straight, and took note of the mayor’s comments on the radio.
“So this has gone from a report that didn’t exist to a report that they didn’t have to a report that is in draft form to, now, a report that is wrong,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “It’s a cover-up.”
Not so, a lawyer from the city’s law department, Eric Eichenholtz, told the judge. Yes, he conceded there had been some “confusion” over the existence, or nonexistence, of a 300-page document.
“There still isn’t a final report or recommendation, and that is probably why they were hearing that for a long time,” Mr. Eichenholtz said. “There was definitely some confusion.”
Well, yes. The same might have been said for the teacher evaluation reports, which are as important to running a school system as they are in any line of work. For years, the evaluation system for teachers was openly dysfunctional, but reforms have been slow to come, even though the Bloomberg administration was negotiating new contracts over the last decade that included increases in the pay scale.
The personnel evaluations of some public workers, like police and fire employees, are protected by law from disclosure. Teachers are in a different category, and the mayor and others contend that parents are entitled to information about the performance of people to whom they entrust their children. Certainly, that ought to apply to the 911 system, too.
One of the most necessary projects undertaken by Mr. Bloomberg was its overhaul. From the outside, 911 looked like an emergency dispatch system, but that function was secondary to the protection of agency turf. Warlord bureaucrats fought with wires and buttons over who got the most exciting jobs.
Mr. Bloomberg set out to change that. Maybe if the mayors before him had published reports that told the truth about the system, it would not have become as ossified as it did.
Whatever its current state, it could not be as dilapidated as what he inherited. He should not worry about airing its current problems, even if the report hasn’t been polished to a high gleam. It means only that there are still things that need to be fixed.
Twitter: @jimdwyernyt

Mayor Warns of the Pitfalls in Social Media

On Twitter, he is @MikeBloomberg, a popular online avatar with more than 230,000 followers. His official Foursquare account leaves tips about Shake Shack and Kennedy International Airport. And his Facebook page energetically promotes the programs and values of New York City Hall. 

But the actual Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg? When it comes to social media, he has a few concerns.
In a speech on Wednesday in Singapore, where he received a prize for urban sustainability, Mr. Bloomberg spoke about the difficulties of leading a city into the future amid a political culture that is often focused on the short term.

The mayor noted that technology, despite its benefits, can add new pitfalls to an already grueling process. “Social media is going to make it even more difficult to make long-term investments” in cities, Mr. Bloomberg said.

“We are basically having a referendum on every single thing that we do every day,” he said. “And it’s very hard for people to stand up to that and say, ‘No, no, this is what we’re going to do,’ when there’s constant criticism, and an election process that you have to look forward to and face periodically.”

Later, Mr. Bloomberg noted that long-term urban planning “requires leadership, and standing up, and saying, ‘You know, you elected me, this is what we’re going to do,’ and not take a referendum on every single thing.”

At that, the mayor’s interlocutor, the Singaporean professor Kishore Mahbubani, took back the microphone.
“I think the Singapore government sympathizes with your point about social media,” Professor Mahbubani said, prompting loud laughter from the audience. “We are having the same daily referendums in Singapore.”

Mr. Bloomberg was still traveling in Southeast Asia on Wednesday and unavailable to elaborate on his comments. But his aides at City Hall said the mayor had been speaking narrowly about how social media can shift the public discourse away from long-term thinking.

“The immediacy of social media, he has found, creates both opportunities — for information-sharing and for citizen empowerment — and challenges, for governments, for businesses, for media, to see beyond the next tweet, or the next blog post,” Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor, said in an interview.

“It’s more about planning for the next 20 years as opposed to the next 20 minutes,” Mr. Wolfson added. He declined to name specific policies of the Bloomberg administration that had been affected by a rough online reception.

At City Hall, Mr. Bloomberg, who made his fortune in information technology, has avidly embraced social media. He hired the city’s first full-time chief digital officer and persuaded Cornell to open an engineering campus on Roosevelt Island. He also frequently promotes the city as a prime destination for talent in the growing field of tech start-ups.

His administration has not been hesitant to use Facebook and Twitter as potent political tools: Last month, amid a controversy over financing for Planned Parenthood, the mayor announced a donation to the group in a Twitter message, generating thousands of replies on various social media outlets.
Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media, a group that studies how technology is changing politics, said he admired the mayor’s engagement with social media. But he said he could also empathize with Mr. Bloomberg’s concerns.
“He is expressing the difficulties and the challenges of using social media in an effective way in governing,” Mr. Rasiej said in an interview. “But I also want to encourage him to say the technology also offers an opportunity to build a better and more robust democracy.” 

Arbitrators balk at slow pay from state

Former NYC Arbitrator Paul Zonderman
ALBANY — An increasing number of impartial arbitrators who hear disciplinary cases for tenured teachers and administrators are refusing to serve because it can take roughly 18 months to get paid, according to state education officials.
The agency’s deficit in the account for arbitrators has grown in recent years and is as high as $9.5 million. There’s no relief in sight because the 2012-13 state budget only includes $3.8 million.
The $3.8 million will first go to hearings heard under a revamped system included in the budget to control costs. Stenographers — who charge about $1,000 per hearing day — have to get paid because they are hired under a competitive contract. Whatever is left will pay hearing officers with past-due bills, state officials said.
“For the past two years, the Board of Regents sought a number of reforms to the tenured teacher hearing process to address spiraling costs and the extraordinary length of time to resolve cases,” Valerie Grey, the Education Department’s deputy executive commissioner, said in a statement to Gannett’s Albany Bureau.
“We are pleased that the recently adopted state budget includes a number of important programmatic and fiscal reforms, and the department has already begun implementing these changes.”
Last May, when Grey testified before a Senate committee, the lag time in pay was about 15 months.
The Education Department’s account for what’s known as 3020-a hearings has had a deficit for the past five or six years, education officials said. It wasn’t until the 2008-09 fiscal year that it surpassed $1 million, they said.
The deficit can be attributed to continued under-funding of the account, combined with the high cost of arbitrators and disciplinary charges that take years to resolve.
Jay M. Siegel, an independent arbitrator from Cold Spring, Putnam County, said he has a few outstanding disciplinary cases and will not be accepting any new ones.
“The payments are extraordinarily delayed, often two years,” he said.
Another reason is the new procedures that were put in place with the budget, “which appear to have unrealistic timelines attached to them,” Siegel said.
The 2012-13 state budget, which took effect April 1, authorizes the education commissioner to set maximum daily rates for arbitrators. Currently they range from $900 to $1,800 for a five-hour day. The commissioner can limit the number of case “study” hours arbitrators can bill for and remove them from the list if they take too long to complete hearings.
Other time limits under the new system include 15 days for both parties in non-New York City districts to choose an arbitrator. Otherwise, the commissioner will name someone. Before April 1, the parties had 45 days to agree on someone.
Another new requirement is all evidence must be submitted within 125 days of when the district files charges, except in extraordinary situations.
State education law requires arbitrators to make decisions within 155 days, but few cases are decided in that time period, a recent review by Gannett’s Albany Bureau found.
Martin Ellenberg, a hearing officer from White Plains, Westchester County, said he takes one or two 3020-a cases each year. “I won’t tell you that we’re being paid promptly,” but the lag time is not too bad, he said.
“The system works. Sometimes it works slowly, but it works,” he said.
The average time to settle non-New York City cases in 2011 was 287 days, down from 338 in 2010, state education statistics show. The average for not-guilty decisions was 1,070 days, more than double the previous year’s average. Guilty decisions took an average of 632 days, down from 742.
The time it took for New York City case decisions in all three areas dropped dramatically. The average time period for guilty verdicts was 299 days in 2011, half of the 598 days in 2010. Not-guilty decisions took an average of 323 days, 37 percent less than the average of 516 days in 2010. Cases were settled in an average of 241 days in 2011, 33 percent less than the 362 days for 2010 cases.
Much of the decline can be attributed to the agreement New York City reached with the United Federation of Teachers to streamline the disciplinary process and eliminate “rubber rooms,” where teachers spent their days while waiting for cases to be resolved, a city Department of Education spokeswoman said Monday. The new system took effect in September 2010.
Most teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence in New York City are now assigned to administrative or non-classroom tasks. The Department of Education can use an expedited, three-day disciplinary process in some non-termination cases.
New York City increased the number of hearing officers from 23 to 39 two years ago and increased from five to seven the number of days they hear cases each month. Additional arbitrators are hired for non-termination cases subject to the expedited disciplinary process.
Non-New York City districts draw from a pool of about 190 hearing officers registered with the American Arbitration Association, agency spokesman Tom Dunn said.