Michael Best, Counselor to Mayor Bloomberg: Weathering Hurricane Sandy at City Hall

Michael Best

Michael Best, Counselor to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, was appointed in May 2012, replacing Anthony Crowell, now Dean of New York Law School. Best serves as General Counsel in the mayor’s office and is one of the mayor’s senior management and policy advisors, helping to coordinate and oversee City agencies, boards, and committees. Best has served in City government since 1991, having worked as General Counsel to the City’s Criminal Justice Coordinator, Director of the Office of Contracts, Deputy Counsel to Mayor Bloomberg, and General Counsel of the New York City Department of Education. Best began his career as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.

Gearing up for Hurricane Sandy. On Friday, October 26, 2012, Mayor Bloomberg issued his public announcement concerning the City’s preparations to respond to fast-approaching Hurricane Sandy. As Counselor to the Mayor, Best was behind the scenes helping to turn those preparations into a reality. Best is no stranger to City crises; he worked in the Office of Contracts in Rudolph W. Giuliani’s administration during the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and was responsible for overseeing emergency contracts to help the City recover following the terrorist attack. When Mayor Bloomberg took office in January 2002, Best joined the City Hall team as Deputy Counsel. The City was still in a state of emergency and Best helped with mayoral emergency orders related to traffic and safety issues around the World Trade Center site. During Hurricane Sandy, Best drew on his past emergency experience as well as the knowledgeable team of lawyers who had previously handled the City’s response to Hurricane Irene in 2011.

“We did what we had to do.” On the weekend before Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, Best and his team were at the City’s Office of Emergency Management coordinating a wide range of issues, from arranging a sign language interpreter for the mayor’s public announcements to drafting the first Proclamation of a State of Emergency and Evacuation Order (E.O. 163) issued on October 28, 2012. Best noted, “The challenge for us was to make sure that we were providing the best legal advice we could in a very rapid manner.” For example, the City’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ policy is that City workers are expected to report to work in emergency situations. In response to that policy, Best and his team had to solve issues such as what to communicate to the more than 300,000 City employees given that many City offices were without power, and that the City wanted some workers to help out at evacuation shelters.

Communication was key to the City’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Many briefing sessions were held to coordinate communications among officials at City Hall, the City’s agencies, and the State to keep decisions informed and appropriate. According to Best, those days were about “everybody in City government pulling together to make sure that the issues the mayor needed to know about were on the table so that we could make decisions in a coherent way.” After the mayor was ready to make formal decisions, Best’s main focus was to translate those decisions clearly and concisely into emergency orders and public announcements.

Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath. After a state of emergency is declared, the State’s executive law gives the mayor the authority to issue emergency orders pursuant to the state of emergency proclamation. Each mayoral emergency order lasts for five days. Best was charged with determining whether a proposed order posed issues under federal, State or local law, and whether the actions required by each order fell within a specific agency’s authority. Some of the emergency orders related to gas rationing, debris removal, and high occupancy vehicle restrictions. Additionally, some policies did not need to be embodied in an order and were implemented as the need arose.

In the days following Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg wanted to get people safely back in their homes as quickly as possible, so the mayor, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, created the Rapid Repair Program. This program, the first of its kind in the nation, allowed the City to make free, emergency repairs to damaged homes and went hand-in-hand with executive orders that suspended building permit fees and allowed reoccupation of structurally sound buildings. As Best sees it, his job was to facilitate making government policy a legal reality without creating legal barriers and without micro-managing the agencies which are experts in their field. To Best, it’s more important that City residents notice the programs and policies that impact their lives, rather than the work involved to make those programs and policies possible.

– Amber Gonzalez

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