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The Story Of Robert Moses Tells Us Why Unchecked Power Is Dangerous — And May Ultimately Be Defeated
By Tina Traster
Around page 675 in Robert Caro’s doorstop of a book The Power Broker, the subject of his tome Robert Moses is finally, after decades, on the cusp of his first major defeat. The book – a lesson to some on the utter abuse of power, a guidebook for others who crave it – shows how Moses kept his beat drumming for as long as he had unflinching support from politicians, other power brokers, an unquestioning press corps, and an underinformed public.
This is a well-worn playbook that marches on until it doesn’t. It works when jobs are meted out, taxpayer spending is rationalized, fear is used as a cudgel to oppress those who might speak out. It works when the press doesn’t do its job. It’s working here in Rockland County.
Moses marched on for decades, building parks, bridges, and roads. He reshaped New York. He was masterful at messaging, controlling public dialogue, and amassing more and more control through public authorities – which gave him the power of the purse with less oversight than most elected bodies are subject to. But his fortunes turned when he envisioned building a bridge from the Brooklyn waterfront over New York’s harbor to Battery Park. Moses, for once and maybe for the first time, was blindsided by a woman. That woman was Eleanor Roosevelt, who whispered into her husband’s ear: “No way.” The president, using his power through the war department, quashed the bridge project. Instead, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was built over Moses’ objection.
Public authorities can be useful. They manage all sorts of municipal functions. But when they begin to overstep, to misuse their power, to manipulate and dissemble, they bring trouble to their doorstep. It may take time before a public authority unravels, but the question is how much time and at what expense?
Let’s consider what appears to be a harmless recent effort by Rockland Green (former County Solid Waste Management Authority) to burnish its image. A taxpayer sponsored ad on Facebook suggests that residents should wear recyclable Halloween costumes this year. The public authority is running a television ad campaign too, projecting an agency that is useful and wholesome.
Why, you might ask, is Rockland Green undertaking a “corporate” feel-good campaign? Because the public authority needs to engender the public’s good will as it gears up to issue bonds and spend an awful lot of taxpayer money for a high-profile project to build a $20 million plus animal shelter in a location that most people agree is the wrong spot for the welfare of animals. With that project will come a slew of construction contracts and new jobs when the operation is up and running.
Rockland Green has become increasingly aggressive in tarting up its branding, as well as working consciously to control the narrative around its role in the community. And it has found willing partners, just as Robert Moses always had, until he didn’t. Every time Rockland Green signs off on spending, it is your town supervisor, a handful of county legislators, two village mayors and a representative from County Executive Ed Day’s office, that votes unanimously to keep that open checkbook pouring forth. Attend a Rockland Green meeting (which with no notice may be switched up to a morning hour when the public authority is making a decision it would rather keep under wraps) and you will see that one man, and one man alone, controls the conversation. Everyone else sits on their hands. It’s like Robert Moses is among us.
In Caro’s The Power Broker, he writes: “A public authority possesse[s] not only the powers of a large private corporation but some of the powers of a sovereign state.” He goes on to describe a public authority as having “the power to establish and enforce rules and regulations for the use of its facilities that was in reality nothing less than the power to govern its domain by its own laws.”
Freedom of Information Requests
Thus, what the public has witnessed in the past year or so is that Rockland Green plays by its own laws. It acquired property without adherence to its own protocols. It plays games when members of the public submit FOILs (Freedom of Information Law). Members of the public are held hostage to demands for large sums of money (say $350) for public information that is readily available. Rockland Green creates an artificial obstacle to obtaining information by requiring a notarized signature on its FOIL form, though no requirement for a notarized signature exists under New York’s Freedom of Information law. Rockland Green also bets that most members of the public won’t take it to court over FOIL denials.
Rockland Green’s ultimate weapon is using the press, and depending upon it to be lazy, or worse, dutiful.
What’s available to correct the misinformation are public documents that tell the story in real time. When Rockland Green justifies its actions through a press release, it is easy enough for reporters to piece together a more truthful chain of events. There are contracts. There is history. There are all kinds of details that pierce holes in the public authority’s version of a story that they post on Facebook or disseminate through press releases – but reporters need to go in search of the truth.
The bludgeoning and misuse of power by a juggernaut can be exhausting to everybody. It isn’t easy to fight a behemoth. But what does it take? In Moses’ case, his fervent effort to build a bridge across the beautiful and iconic New York harbor met with a swell of opposition from hard-core preservationists and good government activists. Consider also his unsuccessful fight to plow through and bifurcate Greenwich Village, which had witnessed the history of what Moses had done to other neighborhoods and stood ready to fight. The fight was led by Jane Jacobs (another woman who stopped Moses).
Whether it’s about abuse of the checkbook, unbridled spending, expansion of the authority’s powers, or exploiting taxpayer dollars, the question to ponder is how long will it take before the public authority’s actions become intolerable? That’s for you to decide.