Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mayor's Order Encourages Developers to Violate the Law (addendum)

The following is an addendum to this response (both by Monte Schapiro) to Bloomberg's recent DOB announcement:

Making plans available online is the least the DOB could do considering its current tacit policy of obfuscation. These are, after all, public records. But, establishing policy without any legitimate rule-making procedure or better still legislation strikes me as an overstriding act by an overweening Mayor.

There is also the issue of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Even if this were the result of legislation it might place an untoward burden on citizens seeking redress.

The press release claims that the newly announced procedure would "increase transparency and raise accountability" by establishing a "formal timeframe" and reduce "confusion and unnecessary and unintended costs for development in New York City." That is debatable and a very biased perspective. Anyway, a formal timeframe has never been the problem from the point of view of citizens seeking information on mostly self-certified projects. Instead, it has been the DOB's view that interested parties other than the developers are an annoyance to be stonewalled if at all possible.

Providing diagrams online may add to transparency but does not guarantee it, nor would it increase accountability. These issues might be better served by rules requiring all permits to be issued only 30 days after the plans have been posted on the website with a one year deadline for objections. Citizens would then have an opportunity to evaluate proposed projects and voice opposition before the work actually begins plus it would allow them to obtain other crucial documents from the DOB. After all, the other side of the coin, of equal importance, is challenging work done contrary to approved plans. That requires constant monitoring and research and this is what most often leads to delays in formal objections. The DOB must be instructed to cease withholding all public documents, i.e. the other contents of job folders, as well. Indeed, full stop work orders and comprehensive audits should be compulsory immediately upon any potentially legitimate objection to plans or disparities between these and the actual work. That would prevent illegal work from being done while the DOB looks in to the matter and conducts audits of plans. These audits should then be concomitant with thorough physical inspections of the site in order to expose incongruities.

Actually, the proposals made my Bloomberg and LiMandri do not even touch on the problems plaguing that department and certainly do nothing or very little to tangibly improve transparency or accountability. One of the best measures of the DOB's effectiveness is to be found in the recent Comptroller's audit report on outstanding DOB/ECB fines. That report, available online, concludes that there are over $200 million in unpaid ECB fines originating from DOB violations. It exposes the folly of using a fine structure as a deterrent, especially when there is no enforcement power behind it, or at least, none which the Department of Finance is willing to pursue. Worst of all, it confirms that the outstanding fines are merely a by-product of a greater problem, that is, that DOB violations habitually remain uncorrected.

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