Now an attorney with a major firm, Melinda Katz has served in the City Council and state Assembly and was an aide to former Borough President Claire Shulman, overseeing all the community boards in Queens.
Put all that experience together, especially her eight years chairing the Council’s vital Land Use Committee, the Forest Hills Democrat says, add in her proven ability to bring disparate parties to the negotiating table and hammer out compromise, and you’ve got the perfect candidate for Queens borough president.
Katz describes that office, the one she is seeking against several Democratic rivals in this year’s primary, as “the culmination of the career I’ve had, and my family’s had, in Queens.”
If elected, she said during an interview late last week with the Queens Chronicle editorial board, she will focus on using the borough president’s authority, especially over land use and capital spending, to create jobs, improve the schools, establish new primary healthcare facilities with the ability to function in certain ways as hospitals do, and retain the trust of the people by always giving them a voice in decisions and being an advocate for all communities.
“One of the things the borough president can do is bring people together,” Katz said. “I think there’s a sense out there that I can deliver that. That’s been my forte in public service. My forte has always been to put people at the table.”
Her service at the borough, city and state levels of government, as well as her experience as an attorney representing nonprofit groups along with businesses, give her a unique position among the candidates to achieve compromise, she said.
For example, establishing the healthcare centers she envisions —in a borough where a number of hospitals have closed in recent years — is something that would require state approval, and as a former assemblywoman, she knows what it will take to get that. Katz said she wants private healthcare providers to build the centers, which would operate under emergency room rules — meaning anyone who walks in is treated regardless of insurance coverage — and have beds for one- or two-night stays.
“From my perspective, it’s an obligation to provide healthcare,” she said. “But from a financial perspective, it also saves the city money in the end.”
Katz said she would approach development as she did during her tenure as chairwoman of the Council’s Land Use Committee —during which, she said, she led the downzoning of 6,000 blocks across the city — approving projects where appropriate but protecting neighborhoods from overdevelopment.
A key to doing that, she said, is upzoning major commercial strips while downzoning side streets, as the city has done in neighborhoods across Queens in recent years.
“For every rezoning, whether it’s Willets Point, Hunters Point South, Forest Hills or Jamaica, we had a philosophy of trying to balance it out,” she said.
She added that she would not approve any project unless the additional infrastructure that’s necessary — especially transportation and schools — is in place.
Education is another key area Katz said she will focus on if elected. She vowed that her appointment to the Panel on Educational Policy will listen to the concerns of parents.
“I think there is not a parent in the City of New York who feels they have a say with the Board of Education,” Katz said, using the name for the former policy-making body that the PEP replaced under mayoral control. “My appointment will speak to parents.”
She said she would focus on upgrading amenities such as auditoriums, play yards and science labs — the kind of facilities administration critics say have been neglected as standardized testing has gotten all the attention.
And, she said, she would revive Shulman’s “war room,” in which the borough president’s staff tracked subjects like the number of school seats being added. Queens is well-known to have the most overcrowded schools of any borough, with many operating at well over 100 percent of their capacity.
On other issues, Katz:
• said she wants more economic development in the Rockaways, though the first thing is to provide the peninsula with better transportation options, because its residents are “prisoners” now;
• declined to discuss the proposal to revive the old Rockaway rail line, which runs to the peninsula, because that will take time and she wants to focus on more immediate transportation improvements;
• expressed skepticism about the rival plan to create a High Line-style park on the old rail right of way, mainly because of security concerns;
• said she would create a funding stream to properly maintain Flushing Meadows Corona Park;
• said she has “a real problem” with allowing a soccer stadium to be built there, as has been proposed, especially if it entails giving public land to wealthy businesses for $1; and
• said she backs adding full table gaming to the Resorts World casino in South Ozone Park.
During her time in the Assembly, Katz said, her proudest accomplishments were blocking a plan of former Mayor Giuliani’s to privatize city hospitals and extending the statute of limitations for young victims of sexual abuse to their 18th birthday plus five years.
She also said her love of Queens is evidenced by her raising her two children in the same house she grew up in, which her family has owned since 1953.