Inductees gain insider information

Former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern spoke recently at the National Political Science Honor Society, Pi Sigma Alpha, member induction held in Council Hall.

Stern served as the parks commissioner from 1983 until 2002 and was also a city councilman from 1973 until 1981. Since he stepped down as parks commissioner four years ago he has played a major role in city politics with an organization he created called New York Civic, which bills itself as the city’s “youngest good government organization.” The organization, according to its Web site, works to influence policy, bring more media attention to city issues and serve as an advisory agent for city agencies.

Stern’s speech focused on the politics and bureaucracy of civil service government.

“It is important for students to understand the tug of war that occurs in city politics because local politics affect us everyday,” he said.

The first point he made concerned the conflicting needs of society and a politician’s role in fulfilling those needs. At times politicians must lie, Stern explained, because the conflicting needs of society force him to. While trying to garner support and win reelection, a politician must answer to the demands of different people with different and often contrary demands of their local government. This conflict in the constituency is unavoidable, and therefore while a politician fulfills one promise he may be acting contrary to another.

Stern’s next point dealt with due process in civil service and how it can produce results that defy reason. He compared the politics of civil service and labor unions to the Salem Witch Trials, saying that much of the time the struggle between unions and government officials becomes personal and can lead to ineffective government.

Stern gave the example of the United Federation of Teachers in New York, which tried to protect a teacher who told her class that if they spoke out of turn or did anything bad she had a buzzer that was wired to every desk in the room and she could electrocute them. The city had a problem removing this teacher because union leaders and city commissioners could not get through the employment laws protecting the teacher. He said that this “web of protection” can also occur in other facets of government, from sanitation to transportation, which creates stagnant and counterproductive government.

His conclusion was that city politics can often be lead astray and produce results that do not meet the demands of voters. He said this is an important issue to understand because ineffective government is a serious problem and can lead to wasteful spending and lost time on important needs. He said that it is up to the next generation to understand and to work past the trappings of municipal government.

In general, those in attendance agreed with Stern’s argument.

“It was good for honor society students to hear him speak because they need to be aware of what happens when they go out to find jobs in political offices,” said Jessica Wright, a senior government major and president of Pi Sigma Alpha.

The induction, which took place on Tuesday, April 18 in Council Hall, inducted 19 new members to Pi Sigma Alpha, which requires its members to have a 3.25 GPA overall and a 3.5 GPA in government.

The inductees seemed to feel that Stern was a fitting speaker.

“I think he was appropriate,” said Lacey Harmon, a junior government major who was inducted into the honor society. “He spoke of things that actually happen in government offices, which I saw while I was interning.”