With a second winter storm bearing down on the city, the New York City Council held hearings last Monday to investigate the Bloomberg administration’s slow response to the December 26 blizzard that dumped more than 20 inches of snow on New York and left parts of the city buried for days. At least two deaths are blamed on the city’s inability to clear streets for emergency crews, including a newborn whom paramedics could not reach for nearly 10 hours and a 75-year-old woman who had to wait nearly three hours for emergency medical crews.
“Over last two weeks, it has become abundantly clear that the city’s response to this storm was completely unacceptable,” Council President Christine Quinn, a Democrat, said in her opening remarks. “It was nowhere near the standard that New Yorkers have come to expect. This storm brought New York City to its knees in a way many of us had never seen before.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been under fire for the city’s response since the storm, and in particular since Republican Councilman Dan Halloran revealed that City Sanitation Department workers had visited him in the days after the storm to confess that supervisors ordered crews to slow their response as punishment for recent
budget cuts to the department.
“They were told to take off routes and not to do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner,” Halloran said. “They were told to make the mayor pay for the layoffs, the reductions in rank for the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank-and-file. They sent a message to the rest of the city that these particular labor issues are more important,” than clearing the streets, he said.
Bloomberg initially expressed doubt that the conversation Halloran described even took place, but later reversed himself and pledged to investigate the allegations.
Appearing on behalf of the administration, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was contrite in his opening remarks. “In the Christmas storm of 2010, we did not achieve that level of performance” that was necessary, Goldsmith told the committee. “And for that we owe you and all New Yorkers for that lack of performance our administration’s apology and my personal promise not to let it happen again,” he said.
In his prepared testimony, however, Goldsmith sought to shield the mayor from some of the criticism levied against his administration, saying neither he nor Bloomberg were notified of the city’s decision not to declare a snow emergency in advance of the storm. Critics have charged that such a declaration would have required residents to remove cars from designated streets, making it easier for plows to clear the roadways. The decision, which was made by the Sanitation and Transportation Commissioners, “never arrived at my doorstep, or the mayor’s doorstep,” Goldsmith said. Goldsmith called the decision a major mistake.
The admission was another significant reversal for the administration. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Bloomberg defended the decision not to declare an emergency, saying that doing so could have made matters worse by increasing traffic on city streets as holiday visitors to the city were forced to find off-street parking.
In the course of the seven-hour hearing, the administration was forced to admit a series of mistakes. City officials testified that:
* Half of the Sanitation Department’s plows are not equipped with radios for tracking and to call for assistance if they get stuck.
* Available resources in city agencies such as the Parks Department were not mobilized.
* Private tow and snow removal contractors were not brought in until the city was already crippled by the storm.
* And critical advance planning meetings were not held until one hour before the storm was predicted to hit.
Last week, the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn announced it was joining the city’s Department of Investigation and the Brooklyn and Queens District Attorney’s Offices in opening a federal criminal investigation into allegations that Sanitation workers engaged in an illegal job action that was directly responsible for fatalities during the blizzard. Unions representing Sanitation workers and supervisors have denied that any slowdown took place.
The City Council chose not to examine the claims during the hearing, citing the ongoing criminal investigations. But the Council did allow Sanitation Workers Union President Harry Nespoli to testify about the budget cuts that allegedly were the subject of the job action.
Nespoli said the cuts were a contributing factor in the city’s slow response. “If you don’t think that takes a toll on what you are going to fight a blizzard with, you are mistaken,” he said.
Bloomberg is in his third and final term as Mayor of New York and has largely enjoyed favorable job approval numbers. The general perception among New York voters has been that Bloomberg is a competent, if detached, administrator who has mostly maintained the improvements in city life that were realized under former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Nationally, the mayor — the highest-profile elected political independent in the country — is viewed as a politician more focused on getting results than playing partisan politics. This reputation regularly generates rumors that Bloomberg may be considering a run for president, rumors he consistently denies.
By all accounts, the city responded well to the second major snowstorm to hit in the last two weeks. But last month’s blizzard, the city’s slow response, the deaths attributed to it, and the allegations that city employees under Bloomberg’s command shirked their responsibilities in open defiance of the mayor could tarnish Bloomberg’s carefully crafted image, and dash any hopes he may have had for pursuing national office.