Case of the 'missing' mayor and a very unusual fire sale

Michael Bloomberg governs New York like a CEO, which means weekends off and selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

So what happens when you make a businessman the mayor of the nation's largest city? He puts the Brooklyn Bridge up for sale, literally.

That's right. In Mayor Michael Bloomberg's effort to close New York's $5 billion budget gap, the billionaire entrepreneur-turned-politician is coming up with some novel ideas that are winning kudos and raising political hackles, sometimes within the same constituency.

For instance, environmentalists are applauding his idea of selling the four bridges that span the East River to an agency that will charge tolls. That could keep traffic and air pollution down.

But they're furious he wants to revoke the 5-cent bottle return - a cornerstone of the environmental movement. It turns out to be a money loser for the city, and it's the bottom-line that matters here.

Welcome to government Bloomberg-style, where the mayor is chief executive officer: a straightforward problem solver with no unnecessary bowing to constituents or the demands of a voracious press corps. Currently, New York reporters are indignant the mayor won't tell them if or when he jets off to one of his four exclusive getaways on weekends.

The New York Post last week put him on a missing milk-carton poster. The mayor couldn't care less. His privacy, he says, is his business. He won't even discuss the flap over the matter.

"Bloomberg is definitely approaching politics from a business perspective, because that's who he is," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There is a little less political sensitivity, so he will offend and annoy some groups."

While Bloomberg's handling of the budget may have the greatest impact on the city, his weekend absences are garnering most of the attention, in part because of comparisons with his peripatetic predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. He made a virtue of his 24/7 governing style, and rarely missed a fire or a shooting or a water-main break.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, makes it clear he's comfortable delegating. Two weeks ago, he had no public schedule over a three-day weekend, then appeared sporting a tan. He was mum on his whereabouts, which prompted a rash of "Where's Mikey" editorials, until he was sighted on a Bermuda golf course. Last weekend, he and his staff again refused to answer questions about his schedule.

The effort to draw a line of privacy in a political culture where the personal and the public became blurred by the scandals of the 1990s is winning plaudits from some pundits and elements of the public. It's seen as a reassertion of a touch of dignity and humanity in a process gone awry. "Even if 95 percent of the public said they wanted the details of his private life, I don't think he'd be inclined to do anything but dance to his own drummer," says pollster John Zogby.

But others see the independence as a sign of political insensitivity and a clear clash of the business and political worlds. "He doesn't realize that 95 percent-plus of his life is no longer his own," says Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The reviews of Bloomberg as CEO of the city's budget are just as mixed. Faced with a glaring $4.8 billion hole in the $40 billion budget, he impressed Wall Street analysts with his command of the details and willingness to cut across the board. "He seems to be approaching it as a pragmatist, without political ideology or a doctrinaire manner," says Robert Kurtter of Moody's Investors Service.

And Bloomberg proved he's not afraid to take on sacred cows. He's proposed suspending the recycling of metal, glass, and plastic for at least a year until the city can find a way to make it pay.

Then there's the five-cent bottle deposit. Environmentalists and urban planners credit it with helping to keep trash off the streets. The five-cent rebate also provides income to several thousand homeless who collect cans. Bloomberg wants to do away with the redemption program, and keep the five-cent deposit for the city. That could bring in more than $50 million a year.

His proposal to sell the East River bridges fell like a thud in Brooklyn and Queens, where people depend on them to get to Manhattan. "This is a terrible idea, and I don't see it as very business-like," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. "In business, you want to maximize your assets and you're not doing that by selling them off."

The mayor and his staff defend the ideas as attempts to be creative. But to implement some of the more unusual proposals, Bloomberg will need the approval of the state legislature - and the Democratically controlled City Council. "He's going to run into a lot of resistance," says analyst Joseph Mercurio.

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