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What is the NYC public advocate's role?

Some city council members say the position is unnecessary

Letitia James will vacate the public advocate role

Letitia James will vacate the public advocate role in January when she is sworn in as New York attorney general. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

With a special election for the city’s public advocate looming, the position has come under increased scrutiny this week. 

Some city council members say the role is unnecessary and planned to introduce a bill to eliminate it. At the same time, a busy field of potential candidates is already making their pitches to residents. 

If you’re left wondering what the public advocate actually does, scroll down to learn more about the role. 

The position was created by the city’s 1989 Charter Revision Commission

Before Letitia James, who will vacate the role in January when she is sworn in as New York attorney general, there were three other public advocates. The first was Mark Green, who served between 1994 and 2001. After him was Betsy Gotbaum, from 2002 to 2009 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first two terms. After Gotbaum, came Bill de Blasio, who served in the role until 2014, when he became mayor. 

The public advocate is the second highest ranking elected official in NYC

If the mayor is temporarily unable to carry out the responsibilities of the office, the public advocate is first in line to assume those responsibilities until the mayor returns. If the mayor vacates the office, the public advocate will take over, but only until a new mayor is elected.  

The main responsibility is to be a watchdog

The public advocate’s primary role is to be a check on city agencies and investigate complaints about city services.  

The elected official, however, isn’t given much power to force the agencies to change if issues are found. The city charter essentially instructs the public advocate to refer complaints to the agency. If the agency doesn’t resolve the problems found, the public advocate can then submit reports to the City Council and mayor with recommendations on how to resolve the problems. The public advocate also can regularly review city programs and submit the evaluations to the Council and the mayor. 

Some complaints are not the responsibility of the public advocate to resolve, according to the charter. For example, if the complaint may constitute a crime, the public advocate must refer it to the Department of Investigation or proper law enforcement agency.  

Aside from city agencies, the public advocate can also act as a check on businesses or individuals. In 2010, de Blasio launched a landlord watchlist, which ranked the city’s worst landlords. James has continued the release of the annual list.

Legal action is not always successful

The city charter does not explicitly give the public advocate the legal standing to sue city agencies, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. James has filed or joined at least 11 lawsuits during her time as public advocate, more than any of the former public advocates, according to a 2016 article in Politico New York

She has been removed from several of those suits on the grounds that she does not have standing to sue, Politico reported. 

There are examples of successful lawsuits, though, including one James settled in 2016 with the New York City Housing Authority after suing over its heating policy. 

The public advocate can introduce legislation in City Council 

The public advocate doesn’t have voting power, but he or she can sit in on meetings and introduce legislation. Recent examples include a bill co-sponsored by James to ban employers from asking about salary history in New York City. 

The position is seen as a launchpad to other roles

The public advocate role offers an increased political profile for the person elected, which all but one have used to at least run for another office. Green ran unsuccessfully for mayor after serving as the first public advocate. De Blasio became mayor after his first term as public advocate, and James was elected last week as the next New York attorney general. 

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