National News

After Snowstorm, Mayor Moves to Oust Official in Charge of Emergency Response

Posted December 3, 2018 11:30 p.m. EST
Updated December 3, 2018 11:36 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Weeks after New York City officials were caught off-guard by a freakish November snowstorm, Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to be caught flat-footed again — this time, by a botched plan to push out his emergency management commissioner, Joseph Esposito.

Firing top officials has not been the mayor’s strong suit. He rarely does it, even amid scandal. But the handling of Esposito’s departure — a three-day misadventure where no one seemed to know whether he had been fired — left even supporters of the mayor publicly challenging the process.

By the end of the night Monday, de Blasio answered one question: Esposito would no longer be in charge of emergency management. But many questions remained — including when Esposito would actually be gone.

“We have started the process of leadership change at New York City Emergency Management,” the mayor said in a statement sent after 10 p.m. Monday. “Commissioner Joe Esposito will continue to lead OEM as we conduct a national search for his successor.”

De Blasio, who did not offer an explanation for why new leadership was needed, added that there might be another job for Esposito in his administration.

Fired. But also, not fired.

The late-night statement — sent nearly six hours after Esposito met with de Blasio at Gracie Mansion — capped what had been 72 hours of confusion at City Hall. The chaos began Friday, as a deputy mayor met with Esposito, whose role includes helping to coordinate the city’s response to acts of terrorism and major storms.

The deputy mayor, Laura Anglin, asked Esposito to resign, according to a person briefed on the exchange.

Esposito refused.

Anglin told him that he would be fired. Esposito said that he would need to hear that directly from de Blasio, the person said.

But de Blasio wasn’t even in town: He was on his way to Vermont to spend the weekend with Sen. Bernie Sanders. Esposito tried to reach the mayor by phone, but was unsuccessful, the person said.

When the mayor re-emerged in New York on Monday, he took the highly unusual stance of refusing to publicly either support or fire Esposito. He canceled his lone scheduled appearance, a weekly interview on NY1, and instead agreed to meet Esposito at Gracie Mansion.

Esposito emerged from the roughly one-hour meeting without commenting, his fate still unclear. Reached by text late Monday, Esposito declined to comment. “Ask City Hall,” he said when asked whether he still had a job.

Thus played out one of the more bizarre personnel snafus ever to unravel under de Blasio, a designation with competition: Nine months ago, the mayor announced the hiring of a new schools chancellor, only to have the candidate reject the offer a day later.

It was not at all clear how the decision to ask for Esposito’s resignation, reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday, was made, or whether Anglin acted on her own or at the direction of de Blasio.

The was-he-or-wasn’t-he-fired episode added another surreal layer to last month’s snowstorm that paralyzed much of New York City, and brought wide criticism on how the de Blasio administration handled it.

For much of the day, members of the Council offered praise for Esposito, formerly the Police Department’s highest-ranking uniformed member.

Joe Borelli, a Staten Island city councilman and chairman of the committee that oversees emergency management, defended Esposito, saying that there was no indication that he was responsible for the problems that occurred during the snowstorm.

“There was never any implication that he was the one overseeing any of the problems,” Borelli said. “It’s unclear why they decided on Friday to make him the scapegoat.”

Anglin made her demand for Esposito’s resignation late last week at the emergency management headquarters in Brooklyn, according to the person who was briefed on the exchange. She was in the building to attend what was described as a routine meeting to follow up on the city’s response to the storm.

After that meeting, she met with Esposito, the person said.

Esposito refused to provide details or say whether he had a one-on-one meeting with Anglin.

The mayor’s office offered no clarity; de Blasio’s press secretary, Eric F. Phillips, would neither confirm nor deny Esposito’s firing, saying that City Hall had nothing to say on the matter “at this time.”

The sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, said Monday that she had attended a meeting at the emergency management offices, which included Anglin and other senior officials and staff members. She described it as a “run-of-the-mill” meeting focused on improving the city’s response in similar situations and on how “you share data in an emergency.”

She said that she had not been notified of any changes in the leadership at the emergency management office.

Esposito appeared along with several city officials Thursday at a City Council hearing on the city’s response to the snowstorm. Council members mostly questioned Garcia; Esposito rarely spoke.

“The problem was that the event was only broadcast as a flurry — just a dusting — so that’s what everyone was reacting to, or working toward until the day of the snow,” he said at one point. “This event caught us off-guard because of the bad forecast.”