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Wake-up call

The name game


Are political dynasties the fruit of the loom of hard work or the fruit of the loin of families who have passed the baton of leadership from kin to kin out of devotion for public service?   

Are their accessions to prominence achieved by the right of inherited legacy or are they earned by fair competition in the marketplace? Are the Kennedy and Bush families, for instance, bred for glory or have they by some other means, alchemized their surname into a magical credential? 

How important are bloodlines and family trees?   

Each of the Weprin, Vallone, Hevesi, Stavisky and Mayersohn families in Queens, for instance, has multiple members who have prevailed in the voting booth or otherwise risen to highly sought-after positions, sometimes arguably based on merit as a secondary qualification. When they get elected or appointed, does the public reap the windfall of their talent and work ethic or merely the waste product of nepotism?

I am using these names to illustrate a point rather than to cast aspersions. From what I know of their records, I would vote for most of them or sit confident of justice before their bench.

A person's family name should neither be held against them nor confer special power. Driven by passion and focus, single-minded pursuits often pay off. Careers in show business and medicine often run in families and consumers ask no questions about whether the admission to pathology school was greased by special favor or if the star got center stage having jumped the audition queue by virtue of lineage.

When families excel, and their coveted positions were not set aside by quirky claims of ancestry but earned fair and square, then their ambition and diligence has been justly rewarded. Nobody holds it against the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach that many of his sons are also remembered as fine musicians.

But there may be a questionable note in the Weprin family counterpoint.

Jennifer Weprin is executive director of the 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum, a coveted and prestigious post. Since 1697 to the present, the land has been continually farmed. Her background is in tourism and marketing. Maybe that made her a shoo-in as the czar of farming.  She is married to former Assemblyman and current Councilman Mark Weprin and is the sister-in-law of former Councilman and current Assemblyman David Weprin (the two brothers duly elected, swapped offices). Mark and David are sons of the late Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin.

According to an investigative report in a community newspaper, there are widespread complaints about Ms. Weprin's job performance. They allege evidence of poor relationships with staff, neglect of the agriculture department, the misappropriation of space formerly dedicated to education, the cutting down of healthy trees without required authorization, the failure to attend to the well-being of livestock and the circumventing proper hiring protocol and other grievances. 

Some particular claims are verifiable; others are anecdotal, subjective and anonymous perceptions. My own impression is that the farm has lost most of its mojo and much of its charm since, not many years ago, I used to visit it and be greeted there by a free-range Polish rooster I named Couture, because of his gorgeous feathers.

Is the harsh assessment of Jennifer Weprin valid? It hardly matters. Given the uniqueness and appeal of the job, is it likely that she just happened to be the most crackerjack applicant? Was it coincidental that a street a mile down the road was named for her husband's dad?

Whether or not that is the case, it's clear that it would not be unprecedented. Jessica Tisch is a member of one of New York's most distinguished philanthropic families. They own a top-rung on the ladder of the city's  social, political, economic and cultural power elite. Her entry level position with the Department of Sanitation is at its commissioner. And Laura Kavanaugh, the FDNY commissioner, was never a firefighter.  

Both of these agency leaders are doing a creditable job. Again, that's not the point. When it comes to "looking out for #1", rightists and leftists are equal opportunists unimpaired by neutrality.

By now, we should be used to the historical convention of applying criteria of eligibility only to lower-level employees. To be even a peon in the State Department, you must meet strict requirements, even in many areas that are unrelated to your duties. But to be an ambassador, all you need to do is be a donor on a level commensurate with the ambitiousness of your post. 

An ambassadorship to Canada is probably dearer than one to the Congo. They'll say that standards must be met, but there are variances, exceptions and excuses that are made to order to fit the influencer. 

Maybe that's the real, secret meaning of "standard deviation.”

When the meaning of words can be modeled like Play-Doh, so can the shape of ideas they represent. Definitions change clothes like fashion models. If we don't want to come to grips with corruption, we send the lexicographers to re-education camps. By welcoming the misuse of language into the common parlance, we become its masters instead of us being bound by their absolute intent.  

Sometimes it's called putting "lipstick on a pig.”

By giving words like "corruption" or phrases like "serve the people" a makeover, our leaders and bureaucrats are free to practice business as usual without doing anything wrong. By updating the definition of bad practices, they can clean out the incriminating wounds of accountability, call it something else, and create a rubric to justify it. 

They laugh at "good government" investigative reporters on their wild goose chases.

Too much openness in government makes its administration unwieldy and can cost precious time when there is an emergency. That's why "no-bid contracts are awarded when urgency, cost, or expertise are major factors,” and a single vendor has no competition.  

But what is the litmus test to objectively prove these conditions are met? Single-source contracts may fall into the hands of politicians' cronies with sticky fingers. Suspension of competitive bidding has something in common with the declaration of martial law: it quells democracy.

But I have pettier pet peeves. One is the proliferation of rain gardens on suburban streets. Their ostensible purpose is to stop stormwater runoff from clogging our sewers. They have the opposite effect. They are choked with leaves, not maintained, and at night are a Studio 54 for partying rats.  It must have cost a fortune to install them. 

A witless extravagance that looks good on paper. 

So does the willy-nilly explosion of bike lanes on streets on which there have been no bikers spotted for weeks. To do this, literally half of a major street that runs parallel to an expressway had to be converted to parking space, resulting in poor visibility for motorists making wide turns.  

The expression "no good deed goes unpunished" lends itself to some novel applications. The bacteria that enjoy a free ride in our digestive tracts while we're alive, turn against us by feeding on our intestines when we're gone. If we could tabulate every morsel of organic matter that bacteria have broken down since the Norman Conquest, the sum would only slightly exceed the number of legitimate beefs that beset and leave us jaded in New York.

Still, I recommend our town to tourists.


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