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August 29, 2005

In the debate for Public Advocate, technology draws little attention

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Posted by Dominic Basulto

WNBC carried the second Public Advocate debate Sunday morning, in which three challengers for the Public Advocate position (Andrew Rasiej, Jay Golub and Norman Siegel) took on incumbent Betsy Gotbaum for an hour of informal debate. What was surprising, perhaps, was that Andrew Rasiej was the only candidate who even mentioned what role technology could play in making the office of the Public Advocate more efficient, more productive and more powerful. After a laudatory op-ed piece in the New York Times praised Rasiej for his visionary Wi-Fi plans for the city, you would think that at least one of the other challengers would attempt to co-opt this theme.

As many readers of this site know, the Andrew Rasiej campaign has been front-and-center in promoting technology as a way of empowering everyday New Yorkers to solve their problems and deal with New York's massive bureaucracy. The public advocate, by promoting ideas like a citywide wireless Internet network, could act as a more powerful watchdog over the Mayor and the city agencies, enabling everyday citizens to have an active stake in what happens at City Hall.

Overall, the debate raised a number of significant issues about the scope and scale of the Public Advocate's office. One thing became clear within the first 25 minutes -- Andrew Rasiej is the only candidate who has done any serious thinking about the role of technology (namely, wireless Internet access for the entire population of the city) in overcoming the shortfalls of the Public Advocate position. Most New Yorkers don't even know what the position is, or that the Public Advocate would become acting mayor if (god forbid) something ever happened to the Mayor.

But getting back to technology... According to Rasiej, it's possible to "reinvigorate" the office of Public Advocate, and turn the role of the Public Advocate into a new type of leader in a fundamentally new way. Gotbaum, Golub and Siegel didn't agree. Gotbaum, the incumbent, sees the office as basically a way to get hot meals to senior citizens and a way to get more food stamps to more families. Which is honorable, to be sure, but not really evidence of any kind of out-of-the-box thinking. In fact, most people don't even know what she's accomplished over the past few years, and she won't release her public appearance schedule. Instead, she defends herself against charges that she hasn't accomplished much during her tenure. As Rasiej pointed out during the debate:

"The issue here is about the vision of what this office can be, not what it can't be. And, unfortunately our current public advocate is often defending what she can't do."

In fact, the triumverate of Gotbaum-Golub-Siegel continually dismissed the Rasiej campaign's $80 million plan to create a citywide wireless Internet network, raising perhaps the most significant question: Who's gonna pay for it? Considering that the Public Advocate's office only has a $3 million annual budget (did I hear this right?), this does seem like a monumental question. According to Rasiej, the initiative is not about technology -- it's about empowerment. Ordinary citizens would be empowered to solve everyday problems, while the NYPD and NYFD would have access to real-time Internet connections when serving the city. Anyway, one of the best quotes of the debate was fired off by Rasiej, on the theme of empowerment:

"The Public Advocate's office should not be one person solving the problems of 8 million citizens; it should be the case of 8 million citizens solving the problems of one city."

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