09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Waterfront Commission: Beware the Backwater

As a shorthand, when describing why data on local governments has to be aggregated at the county level to be comparable, I generally note that whereas in other locations a single county may have a county government, municipalities and townships, school districts, and other special districts, New York City only has two local governments: the City of New York and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But Census Bureau data actually includes a third local government for New York City: the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. I generally don't bother to mention it, or include it within my tabulations, on the grounds that it is too tiny and meaningless to bother with. I never knew what it was, but I figured that it was just some backwater with no useful function where sinecures were provided for political hacks.

A new report alleges pretty much what I had assumed, but also alleges the Waterfront Commission has an actual function. According to the New York Times it "portrayed the agency as a patronage-laden favor bank where staff members took cars for personal use, a boat that was bought with federal money to fend off a 'waterborne attack' was used primarily to ferry V.I.P.'s during Fleet Week, and friends got friends jobs with high salaries and little work." But it also asserted its corruption and incompetence left us vulnerable to terrorism. That I'm not so sure of. I'll bet anything worth doing is actually done by someone else.

State and local government is full of these backwaters, controlled by Republicans and Democrats rather than actual public servants. Dedicated public managers, the ones who make government actually work to the extent that it does, learn to ignore or work around them, so as not to offend someone powerful and be allowed to do their jobs.

It is no surprise that the big scandal at the MTA was in its real estate unit, a backwater no one paid attention to. The big scandal at the New York City Department of Finance was in the assessment unit. The old Board of Education was massively corrupt in its Bureau of Supply. No one really motivated by public service joins the MTA to work in real estate or the Department of Education to manage inventory; they want to run trains and buses or teach children. So these little agencies and sub-agencies get little attention, and attract those interested in the sort of opportunities afforded by that lack of attention.

For the most part, however, sinecures for political hacks are now located in separate organizations that do little else. On the Democratic side, you get "non-profits" owned and operated by state legislators, their friends, relatives and supporters, to which no one would donate as if they were a charity. Most of their money comes from member item grants. The city seems to have similar arrangements. As for the profusion of state backwaters, and local backwaters in areas outside New York City, these have been controlled by Republicans given the distribution of state power from 1994 to 2006. That's who got to not do the non-jobs and get rewarded handsomely for it.

And that might be what this was about - retaliation for Pataki cleaning up the corruption at the Javits Convention Center. So the Democrats are cleaning up some Republican corruption. It would be nice if it wouldn't stop there, and all the member item grants and backwater agencies, sub-agencies, commissions and boards were done away with. But I wouldn't expect that. It's like an exchange of brushback pitches, with each side letting the other know that they'd better play ball. In the end, they are all on the same side, and to them it's just a game anyway. The best we can expect is that the cost is limited and nothing real is affected, as when the Staten Island ferry crashed.

Consider this: inside New York City there are three local governments, including two special districts. In the rest of New York State, according to the 2007 Census of Governments, there are 3,401 local governments, including 1,118 special districts other than school districts. How many of those are little different than the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor? We'll, that's their problem. How about cutting the number of New York City local governments from three down to two?

P.S.: the MTA is a part of state government, but for historical reasons the Census Bureau classifies its New York City Transit subsidiary as part of the City of New York.

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