Council Transportation Chairman Underwhelmed by New DOT Commissioner’s Credentials to Lead $1.3B Agency

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and DOT Deputy Commissioner Margaret Forgione at a hearing on Wednesday.
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and DOT Deputy Commissioner Margaret Forgione at a hearing on Wednesday.

But he’s a great leader!

The former acting commissioner of the city Department of Transportation was put in the unenviable position of defending at a hearing on Wednesday the decision by Mayor de Blasio to hire an intellectual property lawyer and large political donor to run the $1.3-billion agency.

New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman
New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman

Under questioning by City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez at the unrelated hearing, Deputy Commissioner Margaret Forgione — an agency veteran who briefly ran the agency after the resignation of Polly Trottenberg last year — defended the selection of lawyer Hank Gutman earlier this month.

Gutman did not attend the hearing, which centered on a proposal to move the Collision Investigation Squad from the NYPD to the DOT and to dramatically expand its street safety role. Gutman was involved in the creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park and has served as the chairman of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a political appointee. He has given more than $71,000 to Democratic candidates since 2012.

“In the past three weeks that he’s been here, he has absolutely jumped into all aspects of the department,” Forgione began. “We’ve briefed him on many things and he’s made it very clear what his vision and direction is. He comes with experience at Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard and in the weeks that we’ve gotten to know him, we believe he’s going to have a very great impact on the department.”

Rodriguez was not convinced.

“But this is about projects that we are doing. What is his background?” he asked.

“For the projects that we are doing, we have a whole DOT team here that is continuing to do this great work,” she started. “He is bringing his direction and leadership to it, which we have seen to be very strong direction. And I’m sure he would be very interested in meeting and talking with you further about all of that.”

Rodriguez was still not convinced.

Cartoon: Bill Roundy
Our cartoonist’s hot take. Cartoon: Bill Roundy

“I just believe this is top priority. … I feel that [he is] different from the previous commissioners,” he said. “Of course, I was very surprised when we have someone like you, with a long experience inside the agency, and we have someone who doesn’t have any experience with transportation [appointed]. It was a big surprise for me especially, when we are working in the last few months [of the administration’s term] to finish our goal of Vision Zero.”

Forgione tried again.

“Well let me just say one more thing on that,” she said. “He in his career has gotten a lot of big things done. … He has good familiarity on transportation issues as well as being on our BQE expert panel, where he dived into that very deeply. But he brings with him the ability to make things happen and push forward a large organization like DOT, and we think that would be very helpful in this year, when we have so much to accomplish.

Rodriguez was still not convinced.

“I have concerns when it comes to someone who doesn’t have any background when it comes to especially Vision Zero and everything we are addressing is now a person who is leading the agency.”

But he did not ask additional questions about it. We asked City Hall to respond, but the mayor’s office did not immediately get back to us. When he appointed Gutman earlier this month, the mayor was asked about Gutman’s lack of agency experience, and said, “I know Hank will get done what I need to get done.

“I have seen Hank get results [in] thorny situations and community dynamics and find common ground and move an agenda forward with a sharp equity lens,” the mayor added, saying that Gutman is the perfect pick to lead DOT during what de Blasio wants to be “a transformational time.”

“Everything is undergirded by how we get around,” de Blasio added, touting many of the “moving away from cars” initiatives in his State of the City address. “But we have to do this urgently and rapidly.”

At that same press conference, de Blasio said that Forgione did not want the top job — though it is unclear if he offered it to her.