THE BLOG
02/04/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

Welcome Back, Commissioner Carrion

The appointment of Gladys Carrion as the Commissioner for the Administration for Children's Services brought to the de Blasio team a person of exemplary competence, honesty and genuine administrative skill. A commissioner with these qualities will be overseeing the always challenging foster care system and other services for neglected and poor children. Her past success guarantees that, at the least, the city will make all the progress possible in this difficult field.

The strained and strange attack with which the New York Post greeted the appointment of a commissioner of this caliber deserves some comment. Having spent more than two decades in the hot spots of public life, presumably commissioner Carrion herself is not much fazed by unjust attack, from a public standpoint. However, it is important for the city's citizenry to know when they are getting top-notch officials, which a review of the Carrion record shows her to be.

I have met or seen commissioner Carrion five times at most. These sightings occurred over many years of administering Health People, a South Bronx peer counseling and health education program I founded. Health People was originally started as a women's AIDS support program. In our first years, we were also desperately trying to help the many orphans left behind by massive deaths of women. Even though New York City unquestionably already had the most AIDS orphans in the Western world -- and the United States the most of any Western nation -- the federal, state or city governments alike did not provide any special funding to really assist these thousands of distraught children even during the years when American mothers were dying by the thousand. (For all the millions we devote internationally to helping AIDS orphans, I might add there is still no special government funding for these youth in the United States.)

The first time I happened to observe Gladys Carrion was in the early '90s when, as commissioner of the New York City Department of Community Development, she had called a Bronx hearing for public comment on proposed reforms for allocating community development agency grants. This Dinkins administration reform initiative was quite remarkable and the hearing has stuck in my mind all these years. The community development grants were very small -- around $10,000 as I recall -- but those with political leverage then regarded them as their private property. The famous -- or infamous -- Pedro Espada, last seen in federal court being sentenced to five years in prison, came to the hearing, surrounded by a numerous and hefty crew. They made their displeasure at the proceedings very clear. Actually, a lower level Bronx official quit his post (and who shall blame him) when another power from the Bronx's poverty world came directly to his house to demand back his organization's money. And that was just the Bronx. I couldn't see how a commissioner, no matter how proper the aim, could stand up to that kind of pressure from the powers that be in every borough, but she did.

After the reforms, we were then able, through an open application process, to obtain a small grant that made a huge difference in being able to at least provide some happy, normal activities for kids who were distraught almost beyond describing, living day after day in the expectation of the death of their mother.

Following that early display of no-nonsense reform, Carrion worked both for government and at private institutions including the United Way, finally becoming state Commissioner for Children's Services under Eliot Spitzer. Undaunted by the downfall of her appointer, often fatal for reform commissioners, she formed an alliance with Governor Paterson and was able to see through both legislation and policies that enabled a staggering overhaul of The New York State's juvenile justice system. This system, centered on 28 "detention facilities", was so abysmal that the U.S. Department of Justice had threatened to take it over. It cost $210,000 per year per youth inmate, yet was rife with violence, including violence of the staff against the juveniles, and failed to provide even the basic drug treatment and mental health services youth in these facilities needed. But, the juvenile detention facilities, like prisons for adults, were nearly all located upstate, even though most of their inmates came from New York City, and seen as an inviolable source of upstate largely unionized jobs.

Commissioner Carrion closed 12 facilities. She had openly stated this intent from the start and the union had been more than open abut its intent to stop her. I'm not sure if their public assault wasn't the most intense that a commissioner has had to withstand in the living memory of state government. But, ultimately, hundreds of youths who themselves were essentially being abused by the state, at a cost to the public of $210,000 a year each, were sent back to their home communities for supervision and services and a highly improved chance for a better future.

There is so much not simply lying but blather in public life -- the "innovative initiatives" that only initiate jobs for their innovators, the "programs" that don't help anyone -- that one comes to deeply appreciate administrators who are able to make themselves focus on fundamentals and, step by step, see through helpful change of any sort. This is not easy; on the one hand, you are "in charge"; on the other, there is little you can do directly. Often, you can't even fire people in your own department who, day after day, undermine every effort to improve the services the public is paying for. The appreciation of goals, the sense of strategy and -- most important -- the sheer steadiness this takes is certainly beyond most of us.

One would have assumed that this record would be especially appreciated by the New York Post, whose rampages against bloated government -- often justified -- are the regular theme of its editorial page. But, in a lead editorial, stating that "New Yorkers must be wondering about Mayor-elect de Blasio's selection," the Post sneered at Carrion's appointment. The only thing in Carrion's impressive career the Post mentioned at all was one marring incident in her state tenure. One of the social evenings she had allowed as a reward for kids who were doing well turned into a melee with "numerous sex acts" caught on security cameras. Instead of asking how it was possible that a sexual melee, well monitored on security cameras, could occur in a facility bountifully staffed with adult guards, the Post preferred to opine that New York City would now have a commissioner who promoted orgies among juvenile delinquents.

It's too bad that the Post's readers weren't given one hint of Carrion's credentials and accomplishments. It's important that the public have some honest sense of who is actually administering their government. The only possible conclusion is that the Post's attack reflected its well-advertised conviction that nothing good can come of the "progressive" de Blasio, and even for a commissioner who has accomplished the precise thing the Post holds most dear -- namely downsizing decrepit public facilities which had been held deplorably afloat by union muscle -- it would not yield an honest word of fact or praise.

Now, I have to say, that just I have come to truly appreciate good administrators in the public arena, I have also come to appreciate the cranky, contrarian -- and even conservative -- public voice that cuts through the blather. But those voices have a special responsibility to their own credibility -- they are making a claim to see through the common ways of doing things and the sloppiness of accepted views. Alas, without credibility, they too join the blather, as the Post did here, and are more disappointing than the many regular swimmers in the blather pool.