The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

Ed Sullivan himself admits there is some truth to the description, although he quickly terms it an “overstatement.” A conservative politically, he is one of several White loyalists (others include Assessing Commissioner Barbara Cameron, Coporation Counsel Herbert Gleason and Auditorium Commissioner Ted Anzalone) who have been with the mayor for years, 18 in Sullivan’s case.  (“They’re the folks,” cracked a city councilman, “who’ll be the pallbearers at the funeral.”)  Extremely competent as a mediator and labor negotiator, Sullivan is no whip-snapper and, more important, was never given orders to crack down on the line departments as part of an unrelenting productivity campaign.  Not, says a former White aide, that the mayor never made noises about doing so.

“The mayor would occasionally talk about getting control of his line agencies,” said Colin Diver, a BU law professor who served as a White policy advisor during his first term.  “He’d sometimes go out to the neighborhoods and come back furious, precisely because the line department didn’t seem to be responding to what people wanted – anything from an issue as trivial as fixing a pothole or sidewalk to one as important as where to locate the city dump.  But he had a kind of image of how the city works.  He put his faith in the kind of technique that worked for him – face-to-face confrontation, the give-and-take of personal politics.  So he wanted to make the city agencies and the civil servants who worked in them politically more accountable.  He though things like complaints from the Little City Halls would spur them on.

“But as a manger of a city government you can’t simply rely on those techniques to work for you.  In addition, you have to use your leverage through the budget process – you have to say, ‘You’re not going to get more money in the budget unless you run the programs I want.;  There are other ways you can do it: you can farm your good people into the trouble agencies,” said Diver. 

White has attracted more than his share of talented people to city government  through the years, and has kept many of the best ones to himself, either on his own staff or as workers in the agencies he created.  His appointments to head the old line departments, on the other hand, have been uneven through the years.  In Parks, for example, he appointed the highly regarded Joe Curtis, who had made a name for himself with imaginative programs in New York, and he later appointed young and energetic Peter Meade, who’s now set out on his own in a race for state auditor.  In between, however, was Anthony “Tough Tony” Forgione, who is now under investigation by a Suffolk County grand jury for alleged bid-rigging and contract-splitting.  And after appointing White essentially ignore him; he never granted his prize parks commissioner much of his time or attention. 

Curtis was hardly unique in that respect; for both people and programs, the mayor’s attention is short-lived.  “Kevin has a very short attention span when it comes to management,” said Alan Lupo.  “He’ll get interested in something, then lose his interest just as fast.”

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 See all articles by: TOM SHEEHAN