Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Missing Link

Wherefore Art Thou, O Green Book?

We've Waited Three Years For Thee.

New York City's Green Book, which has been missing in action for three years, will reappear in July, according to the commissioner in charge of preparing, editing and printing it.

The Green Book is an invaluable compendium of federal, state, and city agencies and executives, including addresses, phone numbers, and an outline of responsibilities. It has been published by the city, and sold to the public, for the last twelve mayoral administrations. It is an annual directory, just like the telephone book, the World Almanac and other works of reference with periodically changing data.

"The need of a comprehensive directory of city departments has long been recognized, but has remained for the present administration to issue the first edition," said Supervisor of the City Record Peter J. Brady in 1918. Note how Brady credits his boss, Mayor John P. Hylan, who had defeated reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchel in 1917.

Mitchel, who had been known as "The Boy Mayor of New York", died at the age of 38 in July 1918, less than seven months out of office, when he fell out of a single-seater scout plane he was piloting over Lake Charles, Louisiana. He held the rank of major in the Air Service, which preceded the Army Air Corps, which preceded the United States Air Force. As the Times reported, his seat belt was unfastened at the time of the accident.

A handsome monument to Mayor Mitchel is located at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue, near the entrance to Central Park. The area is used by the New York Road Runners Club, and a statue of Fred Lebow is nearby.

From 1918 on, the Green Book was published regularly until the current administration took office. In the nine years of the Bloomberg era, the book appeared annually for four years, culminating in a volume with a saffron cover, which was an hommage to the artists Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, whose work, The Gates, was exhibited in Central Park for two weeks in February 2005

The city then missed two editions in a row for the first time in the book's history. Since the 2008-09 edition, a tribute to PlaNYC, another mayoral initiative, the presses have been silent for another two years.

Commissioner Edna Wells Handy, a career public servant, is the new commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, succeeding Martha K. Hirst, who served over eight years. Ms. Handy told us today that the next print edition of the Green Book will appear in July 2011, which is just three months off. An on-line edition may appear earlier, which would be of enormous value to the public, particularly people who have to deal with city agencies.

The 311 telephone line, launched by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003, was created to handle inquiries from people who did not know what agency could help them. It has fulfilled that function, but often is compelled to refer callers to the agency with jurisdiction, where assistance might or might not be available. At the same time, many agency information numbers were eliminated, so even people who knew who to call were shunted into 311.

The New York Times described the plight of the Green Book three weeks ago in an article by David W. Chen, AN UPDATE OF NEW YORK'S OUTDATED DIRECTORY? THE WAITING CONTINUES. You can click here to read Chen's witty and engaging piece. Subscribers to the Times have unlimited access to its website; visitors get twenty views per month.

Mr. Chen wrote: "So why, then, no new Green Book? The answer, according to the Bloomberg administration, has nothing to do with the current economic malaise. Nor does it have anything to do with any plans to put the Green Book online. And there is certainly no evidence that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg either wants to delay publication or has made this a lower-than-low priority.

"Instead, the official explanation is that there have been too many things to update, first after the 2009 citywide elections, then after the 2010 elections."

Elections have been held each November since before the Green Book was born in 1918. The high rate of re-election by incumbents in gerrymandered districts makes changes based on election returns relatively modest.

Mayor Bloomberg's deserved reputation as a skilled manager makes it unlikely but not impossible that such an historic change from the policy of annual publication would escape the notice of someone at City Hall.

Then again, it is possible that Mayor Mitchel was unaware of the fact that seatbelts in an airplane must remain fastened, particularly if the pilot is the sole passenger.

The law of gravity is less forgiving than the laws of politics.

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