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Condemned to Repeat It

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Councilmember Gale Brewer, who chairs the Council's Committee on Government Operations, held a public hearing yesterday afternoon on an Administration proposal to fold the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) into the much larger Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS).

DORIS was created in 1977 by a local law championed by former Council President Paul O'Dwyer, adopted by the Council and signed by Mayor Beame in his last year in office. The agency's first commissioner, who served through the administration of Mayor Koch, was Eugene J. Bockman, who had been the Municipal Reference Librarian.

The records agency was always small, and has shrunk by half in the last decade. DCAS is a conglomerate of service functions, with many relatively unrelated municipal housekeeping duties. The records function would be about one percent of its activities.

The Administration witnesses supported the merger, the bill having been introduced at the request of the mayor. The independent witnesses generally opposed the bill, although some would accept it if there were written safeguards against cannibalization of the smaller agency. The problem is that, no matter what the words in the bill may say, the surviving agency in these circumstances is likely to do as it pleases. It can always plead financial exigencies, complaining of externally imposed budget reductions. These are real, but can usefully serve as an excuse for noncompliance with statutory requirements. Rule 18-X-6: "The Devil [OMB] made me do it."

As a co-sponsor of the Local Law 49 of 1977, adopted while I was a City Councilman-at-Large (Liberal-Manhattan) and as a member of the Archives advisory board created pursuant to that law, I have taken a long-term interest in the municipal history and the city library and reference services. This area has been degraded by persistent underfunding, making it almost impossible to perform its statutory duties. There is no obligation in the 2011 proposal to increase personnel or funding in the event of a merger. Although there could be minor efficiencies through cross-performance of duties, they are dwarfed by the impending tasks of digitization of records.

My testimony was that the merger came out of a green eyeshade (stereotype for myopic city employee or consultant) looking for an agency to eliminate to save nickels and give the impression that government was being streamlined. In this case, the agency to be abolished is very small and no specific cost savings are anticipated. Among the public witnesses today were Christine Ward, the New York State archivist, Prof. Richard Lieberman, head of the LaGuardia and Wagner archives at the City University, and Brian Andersson, former commissioner (2002-10) of DORIS. The administration was capably represented by DCAS commissioner Edna Wells Handy and Eileen Flannelly, who is deputy commissioner of DORIS. Ms. Flannelly is a grand-niece of Paul O'Dwyer, younger brother of William O'Dwyer, 100th mayor of the City of New York (1946-50). She has a background interest in municipal history. The DCAS commissioner for the first eight years of the Bloomberg era was Martha K. Hirst.

Ironically, when we called DORIS this afternoon for historic information on the advisory boards, we were referred to Mark Daly, who is a public relations officer for DCAS. We had spoken with Mr. Daly a few weeks ago in connection with the non-publication of the Green Book, a city directory published annually since 1918, but not issued for the last several years. Sadly, Mr. Daly was unable to assist us with all of our questions, although DORIS staff is instructed to direct press inquiries to him, as the press officer for the anticipated agency. This is what happens when a big fish swallows a smaller one. It is a law of nature.

What really happened here was that DORIS was regarded as "low hanging fruit," an agency that could be made to disappear without public concern, and with an existing agency assuming its functions. It is true that savings were minimal, but it would appear in the media as if government were being streamlined, which is legitimately desired by the public. Twice at the hearing an Administration spokeswoman referred to "firemen and teachers being fired" as a reason funds were difficult to find for records preservation.

The chair of the Council committee, Ms. Brewer, was patient throughout the hearing. Over the years, she has shown considerable interest in records preservation, the municipal library, making information available to the public, and transparency in city government. She chaired a task force on technology.

The fate of this bill will reflect the views of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and the extent to which Ms. Brewer will be able to influence the Speaker. This is not an issue of the political left versus the right, or the poor versus the rich, or one borough or interest group against another. It is simply a question of open government, citizen access to data and public records, and who has responsibility for preserving the historic heritage of city government.

That task does require money, and for years funding has been woefully inadequate for the purpose. Whether abolishing the agency in charge while imposing no standards or requirements for anyone else to do the work, remains to be seen. We believe it will never be seen because it is impossible. The genesis of and rationale for this bill is that someone saw a box on an organization chart he thought he could eliminate without anyone caring.

The Council's disposition of this bill will show if anyone, in fact, does care about the city's history. No one can support it who is not taking the king's shilling, not that there is anything wrong with that, should it be proffered. But no one should be foolish enough to believe promises that have never been kept.

The Council should specify and expand the duties of DORIS, rather than consign it to limbo as a minor subsidiary of the agency that buys shoe polish, toilet paper and other necessities. It should stand up for history, if it wishes to be remembered by anyone.