Coaxing Koch Into Planning Ahead for the City

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 3, 1987

The trouble with the worthy report of Mayor Edward Koch’s Commission on the Year 2000 is that it calls upon the mayor to govern New York City in a manner that he has declared alien to his nature. It asks him to plan ahead.

The important document, delivered to the mayor this week, says the city government lacks vision and is in deep want of any sense of the city’s future. Of course, it delivers this conclusion politely, because the commission chairman, Board of Education President Robert F. Wagner Jr., is an astute man who would like to encourage Edward Koch to rise above his narrownesses and knows that to confront him head on about his failings is only to make him defensive, combative and sullen.

So without mentioning names or past performances, the Year 2000 report says: “New Yorkers need a long-term view of what New York is all about: That requires strategic planning.

“Despite its fine capital plan, the city now has no single entity dedicated to ongoing strategic planning to spot opportunities; project important social, technological and economic trends; and evaluate changes in the trends identified by this commission…A single office, the Office of Strategic Planning, should oversee long-range planning for the city coordinated with analysis of the region. The office should be staffed by highly competent professionals.”

The mayor responded immediately, saying he would establish a strategic planning office in the City Planning Department. This would be encouraging news if the mayor had ever shown the slightest warmth in the past for any manner of thoughtful goal-setting. Instead, he has made light of it and sometimes sneered at those who urged him to have a design for the city.

Here is is in an interview with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1981, when he was running for a second term:

Q: An article that appeared recently in The New York Times described you as “vague.”

A: That article related to my plans [for the city] for the future. Now, I have found people in politics too often like to prognosticate 20 years hence. I don’t happen to like that. I like to deal with one step at a time. You know, it took a lot of drive and vision to balance New York City’s budget — not planning what New York City would look like in the year 2000…And that separates me from some people who would prefer what they consider to be a visionary outlook. I don’t believe that the grand plan works. So that article says I’m vague. I don’t think I’m vague. I’m very specific.

What the mayor has been most specific about is getting re-elected and re-elected again, as many times as he can manage. And the formula for winning elections, in the case of Koch and his media illusionists, is directly contrary to that for setting long-term urban goals. To harvest votes, the mayor takes lots of public opinion polls and then adopts quick-fix messages to feed the folks what the polls suggest they want; as each campaign progresses, he fine-tunes and alters the messages to conform to his latest poll results. It’s about as long-range and forward-looking as a soap bubble.

We know now, sadly, that his obsession with getting elected — more to the point, with trying to run up vote totals higher than any other mayor in the city’s history — led Koch to give away pieces of the city government to county leaders and other politicians who could produce these votes. A number of them used these fiefdoms to steal from the public and otherwise corrupt the system. Unlike these men, Koch’s aphrodisiac wasn’t money, it was being the King of City Hall, the focus of all the television cameras. He says he didn’t notice, while he was busy playing top banana, that his courtiers were walking off with the municipal jewels.

One wants to believe him, to believe any political addict of this sort, that he’s really going to reform this time and shake the quick-fix habit. But nearly 10 years of superficiality make belief difficult. Ten years of scoffing at critics who asked him to be serious and to pay heed to his city’s deep ills.

Now his own Commission on the Year 2000, which he created three years as a sop to muffle the critics but which took its task seriously, says to him: “Changes are need in a host of areas — housing, transportation, education, health care — but reform is particularly needed in the area of poverty. Without a response, to the problem of poverty, the New York of the 21st Century will be not just a city divided, not just a city excluding those at the bottom from the fullness of opportunity, but a city in which peace and social harmony may not be possible. There is no more important issue for city government.”

One quarter of the city’s population — 25 percent — is classified as poor. When Koch took office, it was only 17 percent. To take note of these figures is not to blame him for all the poverty, but merely to observe that the poor have not been one of his priorities.

His priority, to the exclusion of almost all else, has been himself, and while in this regard he is not significantly different from many other politicians, the disappointment is significant because he swayed us in the beginning into thinking that he was going to be much more.

Now he’s in trouble, with all the corruption and scandals swirling around his tarnished throne. And so he would have us believe that after a decade of belittling the people who wanted him to have a larger vision, he has finally decided to buy himself those farsighted spectacles.

Maybe his campaign illusionists think this is the image that will win him a fourth term. Only his public opinion polls will tell.

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