‘Piles of trash’: Yang, Adams turn on breakout star in New York mayor’s race

The mayor, set to leave office next year, routinely tapped Garcia to pinch hit in times of crisis. She has been lauded for her competence — earning her the coveted Times endorsement and another from the Daily News. But the lackluster parts of her record are now being called into question.

“Many people have been despondent for months and know that we need something different. We need someone very different than Mayor de Blasio,” Yang, the former presidential candidate, said recently on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “And Kathryn, despite her service to the city, is part of an administration that a lot of New Yorkers know has not worked.”

An annual report of city agency performance found streets and sidewalks were rated “acceptably clean” more than 95 percent of the time over the past two fiscal years. But an outside analysis conducted by the state comptroller arrived at a far less flattering conclusion.

The 37-page report released last September — just as Garcia was resigning her city job to enter the race — concluded that under her purview, the sanitation agency did not keep streets sufficiently clean and used outdated record-keeping systems.

“DSNY needs to improve its communication, coordination and record keeping processes to efficiently and effectively address persistent cleanliness problems on NYC streets and sidewalks,” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli wrote. His staff sampled 271 city blocks and found 189 streets and 159 sidewalks were dirty based on city metrics.

Garcia disputed the findings. She wrote in a letter to DiNapoli that property owners, not her department, are responsible for sidewalk cleanliness and pointed out that government agencies often fail to keep up their properties.

“We acknowledge that there is always more to do and opportunity for improvement. But at the time this audit was conducted, New York City was cleaner than ever before,” she wrote. “This was true despite record high population, employment, tourism and economic activity.”

The Department of Sanitation isn’t responsible for collecting commercial waste and doesn’t containerize its trash, both of which also influence the perception of unkempt streets.

When Garcia announced her resignation, she said she was leaving in protest over budget cuts that cost her more than 400 workers. Several weeks later, she launched her bid for mayor.

On the trail, the first-time candidate has sought to distinguish herself from others in the eight-person Democratic field by leaning into her managerial credentials.

As head of sanitation, she was tasked with implementing de Blasio’s Zero Waste initiatives to virtually eliminate the amount of garbage sent to landfills, while providing nuts-and-bolts services like snow removal and trash pick-up. She was named lead czar during an exposure crisis and served as interim chair of the city’s embattled public housing authority when it was placed under a federal monitor. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the city, de Blasio instructed Garcia to set up a food delivery program for residents in need — taking the job away from the Department for the Aging.

Prior to the de Blasio era, she worked in the Department of Environmental Protection in the Bloomberg administration, eventually becoming its chief operating officer.

Her long tenure in city government has given rival candidates something to seize on. In addition to street cleanliness, some contend she could have improved New York’s tepid recycling rate, which falls behind most other major U.S. cities. Initial problems with the quality of food in the pandemic delivery system and persistent lead paint issues at the housing authority also stand to come under fire from her rivals.

City officials and experts POLITICO interviewed said there is merit to some of the criticisms, despite many praising the bulk of Garcia’s record.

Lindsey Green, her campaign spokesperson, said the attacks are unwarranted.

“Kathryn has a record of taking on tough jobs and delivering for New Yorkers that is unmatched in this race,” she said. “Most of the candidates who are attacking Kathryn’s record have said they want to hire her to run the city because of her record. The only thing that’s changed is now she’s winning.”

The city has made little progress toward its goal of slashing 90 percent of the waste it sends to city landfills — in fact, it has exported more waste to landfills since committing to the Zero Waste program. The residential recycling rate stands at 18 percent — a shortcoming owed to a public housing system that mixes virtually all its garbage, a stalled program to recover food scraps and a private waste system that is largely unregulated, POLITICO previously reported in its “Wasted Potential” series.

Most environmental advocates commend Garcia’s tenure as sanitation commissioner, saying she made sustainability a focal point of the department’s agenda.

Environmental advocates widely praised her for implementing a commercial waste zone system, which is designed to better regulate a private carting industry with a spotty recycling and safety record, when fully implemented. She also helped usher through a waste equity bill, which reduces how much trash can be processed in overburdened communities. And Garcia won a multiyear battle to largely ban non-recyclable, polystyrene foam from the city.

“There’s no contest — her tenure as sanitation commissioner was a paradigm shift,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

But most of her key policy wins have since been stripped down or cut entirely.

The department took a $100 million budget hit in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a move Garcia has faulted for dirtier streets. City Hall also repeatedly declined to fund her efforts to expand composting, which is widely considered key to achieving the city’s waste reduction goals. Garcia has pledged to bring back composting and mandate it if elected mayor.

Still, some have argued she should shoulder some of the blame for failed initiatives.

Without naming her, rival candidate Scott Stringer last year said budget cuts were a weak excuse for litter-strewn streets during the pandemic.

“I lived through a fiscal crisis — and dirty streets and lack of management by City Hall signals to people that this city will not come back,” Stringer said at the time. “Stop throwing your hands up because you had to make a small budget cut to the sanitation department.”

Bautista also faulted Garcia for making compromises he said blunted the impact of her biggest policy wins.

After facing vehement opposition from industry leaders, the waste equity bill was rewritten to exempt many transfer stations and doesn’t make the deep reductions advocates had wanted. The waste zone legislation was also altered at the request of business groups and real estate industry to allow more private haulers to operate in the city. Garcia has defended changes to both bills, arguing they remain effective at achieving the goals set out by the city.

“Whenever you’re leaving greenhouse gas emissions on the table, it’s not a good day,” Bautista said. “It’s like everything else — it’s compromise and this was the best I think they could get through. At the end of the day, it will be a marked improvement over the current system.”

Others were harsher in their characterization of Garcia’s tenure.

Brigitte Vicenty, a New York City Housing Authority resident, has worked with Garcia since 2017 after securing funding to pilot a door-to-door recycling program for a Brownsville NYCHA development. She faulted Garcia for not renewing funding for the program, after recycling rates more than tripled among the 130 or so participating households, and generally not doing more to improve recycling in public housing.

“Combative, oppressive, non-receptive are the words that come to my mind,” said Vicenty, who is voting for Adams in the June 22 primary. “At every turn when we took a step forward, she pushed us two steps back.”

Garcia said during a Council hearing last year that Vicenty’s pilot program “wasn’t scalable” and that the department was doing outreach at more than 11 different public housing developments.

During her six-month stint at the helm of NYCHA in 2019, Garcia came under fire from a federal monitor who said she delivered a “misleading impression” at a City Council hearing focused on lead paint removal in apartments with children.

Bart Schwartz, who had recently been appointed to oversee the agency as part of a federal settlement with the city, criticized Garcia and the agency for failing to track down units with lead paint where children live.

“Your decision to eschew the protocols available to you under our agreement in favor of an unexpected and unwarranted public expression of frustration is unfortunate and misguided,” Garcia shot back at the time.

Green called her a “bridge at a time of instability at NYCHA” and former NYCHA spokesperson Jasmine Blake, who is volunteering for Garcia’s campaign, defended her.

“When it came to lead specifically, NYCHA’s biggest problem was we couldn’t get our numbers correct. She would not let numbers go across the street to City Hall unless she signed off on them,” said Blake, now a consultant at public relations firm BerlinRosen. “She cared more about being honest and truthful than keeping the mayor happy.”

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