311: A Political Tool

The News and the Post report that Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested to parishioners at Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center that they should use 311 to help them lobby to raise the state’s charter school cap. “Just pick up the phone, call 311, ask for the name and the phone number of your state senator or state assemblyman, call them up and say, ‘This is an outrage!'”

Strictly speaking, anyone can call 311 to learn an elected official’s phone number. But the mayor’s suggestion that 311 should be used in support of a specific political initiative — one that he favors — skirts the edge of propriety — and, maybe, the law.

We’re uncomfortable with the city’s weak support for traditional public schools while it vigorously pushes for charter schools. So it should be no surprise that we’re also troubled by the mayor’s use of 311 to advance his pet educational agenda, just as we would be if he were to promote the use of 311 to gain support for a favorite development project.

It’s likely the mayor knows that New Yorkers can turn his suggestion around and use 311 to register complaints about its use for lobbying. But Mr. Bloomberg controls the 311 system, and he controls the statistics the public sees about its use. That’s precisely why 311 is so powerful a political tool, and precisely why it should be used judiciously.

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