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Comptroller candidates agree on DOE scrutiny at debate

There were no clear winners and no standouts in a debate last week between four Democratic City Council members running for city comptroller this fall.

The debate, sponsored by Community Newspaper Group, the parent company of TimesLedger Newspapers, was held in Brooklyn at the BRIC Arts TV studios and featured Council members Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), John Liu (D-Flushing), David Weprin (D-Hollis) and David Yassky (D-Brooklyn). It was fast-paced and mostly genial except for a little back-and-forth between Weprin and Yassky.

It will air online at BoroPolitics.com, CNG’s new political news site, and on Brooklyn Community Access Television Aug. 20 at 9 p.m.

All four candidates indicated they would start their work of trimming government excess by examining the books of the city Department of Education, to which they were given new access after the renewal of mayoral control.

All four candidates also said they would favor collective bargaining with city employee unions over possibly reducing pension benefits for new employees in order to rein in the budget, rather than a unilateral decision by the city.

The candidates differed on their reactions to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ongoing program offering one-way tickets for the homeless to cities where family or friends were willing to take them in.

“Isn’t the question why we have so many homeless people in the city of New York?” Katz said, noting the city needed a comprehensive plan to create more jobs and a dedicated program to keep people facing foreclosure in their homes.

Liu opposed the plan, calling it “ill-conceived” and warning there was no clear way to measure its success.

“I’m willing to bet that a year from now this program will be discontinued,” he said.

Weprin was ambivalent.

“It’s something we should be looking at, but I’m not committed to it,” he said. “It’s not something I would make a priority.”

Yassky was more enthusiastic.

“It may well be cost-effective,” he said. “We have a large homeless population. It’s our job to get them settled.”

The candidates also differed on how to reform the city’s discretionary funding process. Three members urged more transparency in the dispensation of member items, while Yassky called for the practice to be abolished.

The candidates agreed that if no-bid contracts were abolished in discretionary spending, a cost threshold should be set, below which community groups like Little League clubs could still receive annual funding without competing in a public request for proposals.

Katz asked Liu how he felt about federal stimulus money being used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for pay raises.

“The flow of these funds, it should not be used to plug the deficit,” he said.

Weprin challenged Yassky’s commitment to the office, pointing out the councilman’s previous bids for Brooklyn district attorney and Congress.

“How do we know you’re not going to change your mind?” Weprin said.

Yassky touted his accomplishments in the Council, including helping file a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for the Greenpoint oil spill and supporting tenants’ rights.

“I’m running with a record that tells New Yorkers that I will use every tool in the comptroller’s office,” he said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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