Bill de Blasio's Elusive City Council Papers Raise More Questions Than They Answer

Bill de Blasio's Elusive City Council Papers Raise More Questions Than They Answer

If Democratic primary winner Bill de Blasio is elected New York City's next mayor in November, one of his jobs will be to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from the citizenry.

The files containing letters from constituents, which are arranged alphabetically, only go up to the letter H.

As a New York City councilmember representing Brooklyn from 2002 to 2009, however, de Blasio made a habit of trying to fix tickets for his constituents, repeatedly writing letters to agencies such as the Parking Violations Bureau and the Environmental Control Board throughout his tenure.

The revelation emerged in a Village Voice review of de Blasio's City Council papers filed in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College—and it comes with a heaping helping of political intrigue.

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Under the New York City Charter, once records enter the archive, they are to be accessible to the public and to remain in the collection forever.

"Records of historical, research, cultural or other important value shall be transferred to the municipal archives for permanent custody," reads the charter.

For at least a year beginning in December 2011, however, approximately 17 boxes containing the council papers of mayoral candidates de Blasio and John Liu were removed from the archives and made inaccessible to the public for reasons that remain murky.

The intrigue began innocuously enough in November 2011, with a routine request from a New York City resident to view the de Blasio and Liu files. At the time, neither man had declared for mayor, but it was clear both would run in 2013.

The archive complied initially with the citizen's request, but records indicate that on December 13, 2011, archives officials removed all the files and sent them to the office of general counsel Elizabeth Fine, the City Council's top lawyer.

And there they sat.

Fast-forward to September 3 of this year, when the Voice requests to view the documents. The following day, LaGuardia archivist Douglas Di Carlo responds via e-mail, saying he'll have to consult the council as to whether the papers contain "private information," writing that "[t]he City Council has required review of Council Members Papers in the past, prior to researcher access."

When the Voice reminds him that there is no provision in the City Charter for the review of records once they have been added to the permanent archive, Di Carlo reverses himself, relaying that the council has green-lighted access.

Why, then, were the records made inaccessible in December 2011, under similar circumstances? Di Carlo maintains that the papers are the property of the council. "When they want to take papers out, they can," he says during a subsequent telephone interview. "It's the council's decision, and I can't speak to why."

Asked whether other councilmembers' files have been removed, Di Carlo ends the conversation, saying, "I don't feel comfortable with answering so many questions about this. I think you should speak with the council's attorneys."

Elizabeth Fine referred the Voice's request for comment to council spokesman Jamie McShane.

McShane says it was the archivist, not the council, who initially raised the concern that some of the records in his care might include private content. "The archivist had concerns about personal information and constituents' privacy," McShane says, adding, "Neither de Blasio nor Liu had any role in it."

McShane explains that Fine's office consulted with the New York City Law Department and decided to treat the December 2011 request as a normal inquiry under the state's Freedom of Information statute.

He says no documents were taken out or altered while the records were in the council's care. He acknowledges that there was an undue lag in returning the records to the archives, calling it "an administrative delay that shouldn't have happened." (Precisely when Fine returned the boxes is unclear. A document in the archive indicating when the files were removed contains a space for the return date—but that space is blank.)

The current episode recalls a higher-profile controversy at the end of Rudy Giuliani's mayoral administration. As the Voice's Wayne Barrett reported in 2002, Giuliani made a secret agreement with the archive that allowed him to squirrel away his papers under the aegis of a separate nonprofit.

The move brought sharp criticism from archivists and from the state Committee on Open Government, whose director, Robert Freeman, accused the former mayor of violating state law.

At the time, Giuliani claimed the papers would be used to create a "Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs." (To this day, no such entity exists.) About four years later, in 2006, Giuliani's papers were restored to the possession of the municipal archives—though what happened to them in the interim remains a mystery.

Of course, as an employee at the archive tells the Voice, staffers there have no way of determining whether anyone tampered with the de Blasio and Liu papers, as the documents have not been indexed. Moreover, before the records were first sent to the archives, they would have been reviewed. Why they needed to be reviewed again in 2011 and held outside the archives for a year or more remains a mystery.

"In essence, they got two bites at the apple," the employee says. "What they did with them when they took them, we wouldn't know."

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