Public Advocate Letitia James has a goal — to prove those who say her office is irrelevant wrong.
The city’s fourth public advocate since the position was created in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that eliminated the old Board of Estimate, James said she would use all the powers of the office, despite having a budget that’s only about a quarter of what it was in the 1990s.
In a sit-down Monday with the Queens Chronicle, James spoke on a number of Queens-related issues, from Sandy recovery to the Queens Library to the plans for development at Willets Point. She also spoke at length about education policy, an area in which she said she has some disagreements with Mayor de Blasio.
“We’re allies, we’re from the same party, but when I disagree with him, I will let him know it,” she said, noting she has criticized the mayor on allowing most Bloomberg-era co-locations to move forward and for keeping schools open during a snowstorm in February.
“I think safety should have taken precedence,” she said of the decision to not close the schools.
On education, James said she supports charter schools and would back co-locations if they work, but she doesn’t believe they do in most cases.
“We can’t allow co-locations in schools that are already at or over capacity and we can’t allow it to affect special education students,” she explained.
She has sued the city to block the co-locations approved last year and moved forward by the de Blasio administration to be stopped. The case will go before a judge on April 23.
On the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, James acknowledged that the city’s Build it Back program has been a big problem, but said she would give the mayor a chance to make it work with his new team.
She strongly supports keeping the Rockaway ferry that was put in place temporarily after Sandy, having appeared at a rally last week in support of it.
“It’s a great ride,” she said. “It’s a great thing for the Rockaways.”
James also spoke about the plans for Willets Point, comparing the situation there to the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, which she opposed as a City Council member.
“What we saw there was that promises were not kept,” she said.
James noted that Forest City Ratner, the developer of Atlantic Yards, had promised to build affordable housing and two- and three-bedroom apartments for families, but never did.
She said the plans for Willets Point need to be watched closely and the developers need to keep their promise, and warned that if the plans for the project change drastically, they must go through the Universal Land Use Review Procedure again.
She took a strong stance against UPS’s decision to fire 250 workers at its Maspeth facility after they protested the termination of a fellow worker, saying she would use any means necessary to pressure the company to reinstate the employees. She offered her office as a negotiating place.
UPS says it has the right to fire the employees under the workers’ labor contract.
She suggested that management could have handled the situation differently, perhaps by docking pay.
An ex-officio member, and presiding officer of the City Council, James has the power to introduce legislation and the right to sit in on any committee hearing, which she has taken full of advantage of.
“I’ve introduced more legislation than any other public advocate,” she said. “I’ve also sat in a lot of committee meetings.”
“When 311 takes calls and doesn’t know where to send them, they go to our office,” she said. “It’s a lot for a staff of 23, but we do it.”