Working for the President (of Manhattan)

NYC Government

The governmental apparatus of New York City is probably more complicated than you think, unless you happen to have worked in it before. There are various city agencies, boards and judiciaries – and that’s all before we get to elected officials. The elected positions of New York City government include:

  • Mayor, who is the executive of the entire city
  • Public Advocate, who stands first in line after the mayor
  • Comptroller, who audits city agencies and is the fiduciary to city pension funds
  • City Council – the city’s legislative body – of which there are 51 seats to represent all city districts
  • Borough Presidents, of which there are five, one for each borough

Borough President is a position somewhere in between an executive and legislator. They can introduce bills to city council, but cannot vote on them. They maintain capital budgets taken from the city budget that they use as they see fit (such as on improvement projects). They appoint the members of their boroughs’ community boards, and host monthly meetings with the board chairs and district managers. And perhaps more than anything, the Borough Presidents are advocates for the needs of their boroughs and residents.

The Position

For my internship, part of the second-year curriculum at Bard CEP, I am working in the office of the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer.  The office is based out of the Manhattan Municipal Building, featured on the right, just across the street from City Hall. The office has multiple divisions within it, such as Land-Use and Community Affairs. I am working specifically for the Policy Unit, which features four policy analysts and a policy director, who is my immediate supervisor.

Due in large part to the efforts of the policy director, President Brewer has been a very influential figure for food policy within New York City. (Before being President, she was a City Council Member for the Upper-West Side.) Among other things, she has been an advocate for composting, local sourcing, fresh food programs, and free summer meals for kids. Just as I arrived, the office was mailing out its most recent report on dwindling Supermarket locations within Manhattan. The office’s focus on food policy issues was the main reason I was so drawn to this internship.

Responsibilities

My role within the policy division revolves around assisting with already established programs, performing policy analysis, and starting up a new study on open space. I’ll provide a couple of concrete examples:

Every Thursday, we partner with GrowNYC to provide heavily discounted bags of assorted farm-fresh produce to anyone who would like ($14 a bag), right outside our building. In about an hour, I and the other volunteers manage to divvy up the wax-boxed produce into about 150 paper shopping-bags. As a reward, we usually are allowed to take a few spare produce items home with us. Of course, now that I’ve made it public, this practice will probably stop. Soon, I will be helping to manage a similar program that we run for seniors on the northern part of Manhattan, called Fresh Food Box for Seniors.

Manhattan is an extremely dense place to live and is often referred to as a “concrete jungle.” This density is one of the city’s strengths in that allows for idea-sharing and innovation; however, it also provides unique challenges when it comes to supplying residents with open green space. While nobody discredits the beauty and function of Central Park, it is widely recognized that residents throughout the entire borough are entitled to local green spaces, both for mental and physical health, within walking distance of their homes. To determine how well the borough is performing this service, I will be designing and implementing a study of the borough’s open green space. We are still in the initial stages of planning; however, the report will likely take a close look at areas that are underserved by green space and provide policy recommendations for bringing green space to these neighborhoods so as to spread issue awareness and influence legislation and agency action.

Activities

In addition to the office work, we (interns) are also encouraged to attend all sorts of out-of-office affairs such as panel discussions, hearings at City Hall, and tours of Manhattan neighborhoods and landmarks that are coordinated by the office.

A couple of the highlights so far have been the tours of the Hamilton Customs House, 311 Call Center, and city court houses. The picture below is of a group of us – I’m far left – after visiting two court buildings near our office. Fun fact: the New York County (a.k.a. Manhattan) Supreme Court is the only “Supreme Court” in the country that is not an appellate court. It is simply a trial-level court, and its name harkens back to a time when the court served citizens beyond the borders of New York County.

About Scott Matus

Scott is a Master’s student at Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy. His primary focus is food systems and their relation to urban sustainability. Scott grew up in NYC’s Midtown East neighborhood, right across from his favorite bagel place (Tal), and will soon be returning to NYC for an unknown amount of time.