Last week saw some major announcements within the veteran's community in New York. If you hadn't heard, last Tuesday Governor Paterson announced that he had accepted Jim McDonough's resignation as the Director of the State Division of Veterans Affairs after two and half years on the job. Then on Wednesday came word of Bill White's abrupt departure as CEO of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, right on the heels of this year's Fleet Week.
With these departures and the beginning of the campaign season for Governor, Attorney General and the majority of state legislators, it would seem that the winds of change are now blowing. Interestingly, this "wind" also appears to be blowing in New York City with the possible thawing of relations between New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the city's veteran's community.
The beginning of this possible thawing seemingly caught everyone by surprise when Speaker Quinn announced to various veterans groups and advocates on May 14th that the Council was embarking on two new initiatives to help city veterans.
The first initiative is the Council's partnering with an organization called Warrior Gateway which provides veterans and their families with resources and information about housing, jobs, health care and other important issues. The second initiative calls for the Council to expand its own database of veteran service providers so that they can offer the most accurate, up-to-date and helpful information to city's veterans who call the council or visit their website.
As for the reason behind the initiatives, Speaker Quinn's stated in her letter that "while the federal government oversees the bulk of services provided to veterans, we at the Council feel it's our responsibility to ensure that veterans can effectively access these services at the local level."
While veterans applaud the Speaker's change in direction and see this as a possible first step towards re-engagement with the community, there are issues with these two initiatives. On a boarder level, there is a lot of work Speaker Quinn will have to do before veterans can once again feel comfortable with her. Four plus years of doing little to help veterans and their families, including a "slush fund scandal" involving a fake veteran's organization will do that.
As for the new initiatives, most wonder why the council believed it had to take them up in the first place. The major issue being that they should have been started and completed by the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) years ago! As the city agency that deals with veterans and veteran issues, this first initiative - having a network of local resources on their website - should have been a priority for MOVA as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on and the number of local and national organizations looking to help veterans and their family members grew.
Therefore, many veterans wonder why Speaker Quinn now believes that it's the council's responsibility to do the Bloomberg administration's job, especially with a report due out at the end of the month by Public Health Solutions that is reviewing all aspects of MOVA and what it could be doing to better serve veterans.
As for the second initiative, once again this should have been MOVA's job. If they had a database, the council would only have had to ask them for it. More importantly though is how many veterans and returning veterans are actually going visit the council's website looking for veteran service providers. A veteran looking for help may reach out to his/her local council member; however over the past eight years Mayor Bloomberg has consistently promoted the city's website or dialing 311 when looking for assistance and help. Lastly, on a political level, there are some who believe that the second initiative may be nothing more than an opportunity to be able to reach out to veterans and veteran groups for their support three years from now, when Ms. Quinn may run for Mayor.
Regardless, as I said in my last article, the mission and by extension, the focus of the City Council and its Veteran's Committee is separate from the Mayoral side of the house. The Council acts as a balance on an administration by monitoring the operation and performance of city agencies. It does not take on their jobs.
As to Ms. Quinn, prior to becoming Speaker she chaired of council's Health committee and worked with veterans to save both the Manhattan and Brooklyn VA Hospitals during the Veteran Administration's (VA) CARES process. However, over her last four years as Speaker, when she had an opportunity to show leadership and be pro-active on veteran's issues, Ms. Quinn instead chose to take cues from the Mayor and his administration.
In early 2007, I wrote an article on the political blog Room 8 detailing some of problems veterans were experiencing with the Speaker. Moving forward, Ms. Quinn must keep the "winds" blowing by continuing to outreach and listening to the community. She can start by being independent and working with the veteran's community on issues that need to be addressed. There is a lot of work that needs to get done. With our current economy, veterans, and most importantly our newest veterans, need help with employment, housing and a host of other issues. The proverbial ball is in her court.
Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve and is a veteran's advocate in New York City.