It’s been eight months since Jumaane Williams, a former Brooklyn City Councilmember, has served as New York City’s public advocate.

He assumed the role “early” (or “late,” depending upon how you look at it), following a special election in February 2019 after the post was vacated by Tish James, who was elected as the state’s attorney general in November 2018.

A second election for New York City Public Advocate will be held on Tuesday, November 5, 2019, for the remainder of the four-year term through December 31, 2021.

Williams sat down with a group of reporters last week at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism to talk about the role of the public advocate; why it is important; and what his office has accomplished thus far.

The Role of Public Advocate

What is a public advocate? Most residents would not be able to tell you, but it’s actually a critical role to understand, as it is first in the mayoral line of succession. The role was created as a charter in 1989 and gives whomever holds the position 5 main powers:

  1. The power to introduce (but not vote on) legislation into the city council
  2. The power to act as an ombudsman or a go between the people and city government
  3. The power to watchdog city agencies to make sure they are doing their job on behalf of residents
  4. The ability to make appointment to various committees, like the City Planning Commission
  5. The ability to vote on pensions

The public advocate may sit in meetings of the City Council and introduce legislation but may not vote on any measure. Although the position has little direct power, it is seen as a launching pad for higher office. Mayor de Blasio was NYC’s Public advocated from 2010 to 2013.

“The voting pulpit is a very important and key role in being able to lift issues on behalf of city residents,” Williams said.

Since February, his office has put forth more bills than any other city advocate up until this point, he said. In fact, they’ve been busy– unusually busy for someone in this role. As PA, Williams in September also put out a report on how police should respond to people with mental health crisis.

“That was big for me, because it was something I was trying to get done as a city council member. And just being able to have the resources to get it done, I was very proud to be able to issue that,” he said. 

He’s also restructured the office from one that approaches issues through a legal lens, as did James, an attorney, but instead focuses on grassroots community outreach. Now there are two “First Deputy Public Advocates” focused on policy and community engagement and five “Deputy Public Advocates,” whose directives include civic & community empowerment, infrastructure & environmental justice, health equity & safety, education & opportunity, and housing.

“I’m a community organizer by training, so I come with a community organizing lens,” Williams said. “So we wanted to try to fill the gap where we think the government often does things to communities, and we wanted to do things with communities.”

“Also, diversity is very important in our office to make sure that all of New York City has access to all of us and all of the things that we do…” he said. “Tish James is fond of saying I’m the second best public advocate; I respond, just give me some time.”

On his Relationship with and View of the Mayor

Williams had both praise and criticism for NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, particularly around his financial priorities and his handling of the affordable housing crisis:

“The mayor has done a lot of good things, but sometimes he gets in his own way,” Williams said. “Some of the things he’s done have been good; my frustration is he could have gone even further.  I look at, what did you have the power to do? And what did you do? Based on that question, there’s just a lot of places where we just simply failed, such as homelessness, housing; with transparency and accountability in policing, we’ve gone backwards.”

Williams also acknowledged other areas where he thinks the mayor deserves credit, such as with passing Universal Pre-K. He says he’s working with the mayor now on passing a bill to get every New Yorker paid time off.

“This position is not inherently an ally or foe; it’s pushing for what’s right for the people who love the city.” 

On The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT)

On the SHATs, Williams repeated for the most part, his same argument during the May hearings on whether to keep or eliminate the SHATs. Those in favor of eliminating the exam were pointing to city’s Black and Latino students population– 68 percent– which was not reflected in the 10 percent acceptance rate of students of that demographic. Many pointed to a failed public school system that was not adequately preparing them.

“Quite frankly, Even the most progressive people get less progressive when they have a child.”

Williams supports keeping the test. As a graduate of Brooklyn Tech, one of the nine specialized high schools in the city, he argued the SHAT was actually a pathway in, versus out, because his grades would not have gotten him accepted.

I believe we have a lot of different access points to quality education; we have to look at the rest of the system,” said Williams. “But if we took away these 9 specialized schools, what would we have left, but the most segregated system in the country.”

He supported pushback efforts by the Asian community– a group targeted by opponents of the test as one that had over-representation at the city’s specialized schools:

“Quite frankly, Even the most progressive people get less progressive when they have a child,” said Williams, to laughter and nods of agreement. “There’s a community that found a way to get in, and I’m not mad at them. You can’t set something up and a community finds a way to get in and then change it. What you can do is make sure everybody has access.”

On the closing of Riker’s Island

On October 17, the city council approved a sweeping $8 billion plan to close Riker’s Island and replace it with four smaller jails by 2026. The move was part of the the city council’s bigger plan to overhaul the city’s correction’s system. 

Jumaane agreed that Riker’s Island needed to be closed but said the city needed to do more if it was going to be serious about a correction’s overhaul:

Buttons PA Jumaane Williams wore to a recent press roundtable

“It’s about deconstructing a mass incarceration system that is not just in the first place; it needs to be dismantled,” he said. “But if we don’t fund the things that are broken in society to prevent them from coming in the first place, then we’re really just building additional beds.

We need to see the same kind of investment that have to do with bricks and mortar on the expense side, to deal with issues of supportive housing, mental health, making sure our school system provides adequate education.

Williams said everyone seemed focus on only part of the commission and not the entire plan. “My call now is for the mayor, the Speaker and the city council in the June budget to include a plan that speaks to these other issues, similar to what the plan was in the commission.”

On NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

NYC has a housing crisis. More than 61,000 men women and children spend the night every night in homeless shelters.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, Mayor de Blasio’s predicted a 2,500 decrease in the overall number of shelter residents by 2022. But the Coalition’s analysis shows that, with the current acceleration of rising housing costs, the number of city residents living in shelters will actually increase by 5,000 by 2022.

The NY City Council has put forth a bill, Intro 2011, which requires all new housing developments that receive city financial assistance set aside at least 15 percent of new units for homeless families. The bill has secured a veto-proof majority of Council members signed on as co-sponsors, as well as the support of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. But Williams still worries it may not be enough to stem the bleeding, given the current climate, lack of transparency and past mismanagement of funds.

“We’ve got the orange man in the white house, which I don’t have much faith in; and Dr. Ben Carson who not only lives in the sunken place, he probably created it.”

“Remember, NYCHA has a $40 billion need for capitol improvement. But we were lied to by NYCHA for quite some time, and this administration has to take responsibility for that,” said Williams.

“The governor has pretty much zeroed out the funding he promised while he was campaigning; and then we’ve got the orange man in the white house which I don’t have much faith in; and Dr. Ben Carson who not only lives in the sunken place, he probably created it. So I don’t have much faith in them.

“But I always remind people that both the mayor and the governor work for HUD,” he said. “And the governor was the HUD Secretary. So this shouldn’t be new to any of one of them. But again, I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner now, where the misinformation has stopped and we can deal with the fact that there is mismanagement of funds.”

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