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The Quiet Deception of Community Control

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In order to garner political support for his suspension of term limits, Mike Bloomberg promised New Yorkers a chance to review and revise the City Charter, the document that outlines the power structure and legislative process of the City of New York.

Considering last year's historically low voter turnout, it's certainly a fitting time to begin a dialogue on strengthening democracy in the five boroughs.

Last week, the Charter Review Commission kicked off a string of public meetings throughout the 5 boroughs, each designed to gauge public sentiment about how best to bring fairer government to New York. According to SILive.com, a Staten Island news site, attendees to the Staten Island meeting last Monday seemed to call for increased local control of municipal services at their borough's Charter Review Commission.

But while the call for localism is a seductive one given the state of the city, in the end I think it really boils down to a cheap kind of populism.

Sure, it rings with democratic overtones: its proponents present a fair, logical way to involve citizens in their local government. It appeals to our common notion that there should be routes for citizens to participate in and voice their concerns to their representatives. On the surface, it's a democratic and morally sound way to entrust the needs of a community to its citizens.

That is, until you think of the potential for a plethora of empowered nameless, faceless community boards, largely unaccountable for their wrongdoing due to their sheer number throughout the city. Until you picture their untrained, un-vetted leaders that will deal with advanced budget issues and policy ideas that should be handled by economists, public health officials, lawyers, hospital administrators, and other trained professionals.

We don't need a byzantine array of tiny local boards to make our system of governance even more unstable. We already have too many corrupt, unaccountable and downright lazy legislative bureaucracies in New York State as it stands.

Consider what Pedro Espada was able to get away with in the State Senate. It took a coup, an out-of-district residence, and $14 million of public funds to get him in any kind of trouble.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Pedro Espada wants to radically decentralize our city government, stripping away the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents' offices, replacing them with empowered community boards.

Espada's business depended on a lack of transparency, on hidden thefts through paperwork. For years, he relied on the risk-sharing of systemic wrongdoing. That is, when you work within a network of people, and everybody in your given profession transgresses regularly, you have less of a chance of being singled out and held accountable. An executive like David Paterson can summon hordes of critics at the slightest misdeed, while Sen. Malcolm Smith can be busted time and time (and time) again without the slightest repercussion to his career.

Men and women like Espada thrive off of the muddy, hazy fog of bureaucracy. The rules are softer when there are so many participants, and unless you're socially or sexually lascivious, or historically corrupt and disruptive like Espada, you'll likely survive your scandals and your more minor embezzlement in the wilds of the state legislature.

A lot of us are angry in New York because of how powerful the mayor has become over the past 9 years. Bloomberg's suspension of term limits, his unchecked real-estate development plans and his draconian control of the city council have created an understandable swing of the pendulum to demand a softening of central power.

Let's avoid allowing our anger over our mayor's abuse of city government blind us into justifying rampant decentralization, creating yet more legislative bodies that have zero accountability, and no public hiring process. Instead, let's hope for a center with more diversity. One that lends power to the outer-boroughs, their county leaders and executives, and widen the advocate's office to reach out to the politically disenfranchised.

At the very least, let's begin a reasonable dialogue about changing our city government.

Check in here to find information about upcoming meetings from the CRC.