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NYC mayor: Tense talk led to confusion over chief’s ouster

December 5, 2018

NEW YORK (AP) — So, that was a bit of a disaster.

New York City’s mayor on Tuesday faced up to the botched firing of the city’s emergency management chief, saying miscommunication and his own hands-off approach muddled a decision that was made weeks ago and wasn’t related to the response of a recent snowstorm.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that in hindsight he should’ve talked to Commissioner Joseph Esposito himself, instead of sending a deputy to give him the boot after 4½ years on the job.

“It could’ve been handled better all around, honestly,” said de Blasio, making his first public comments on the matter after a press conference on city crime statistics.

Deputy Mayor Laura Anglin met with Esposito on Friday, while de Blasio was heading to Vermont for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ summit, but that conversation turned emotional and tense, leading to confusion over Esposito’s job status, the mayor said.

De Blasio said Esposito mistakenly thought that only the mayor could fire him.

Word of Esposito’s ouster leaked over the weekend. Multiple news reports on Monday citing anonymous sources said Esposito was fired over the city’s response to an unexpected slippery snowstorm on Nov. 15.

De Blasio didn’t help matters by refusing to answer questions about Esposito, who was in the office working Monday afternoon, until he issued a statement late Monday that said the commissioner was being replaced but that he would stay on the job until a successor was found.

“There was a lot of confusion yesterday in the public domain,” De Blasio said. “It was absolutely understandable that there was so much confusion.”

The chaos led to ridicule for the mayor on the front pages Tuesday of the city’s brash tabloid newspapers. The Daily News’ headline was “Sleet for Brains,” while the Post featured a rotting apple and the headline: “De Blasio’s New York.”

De Blasio scrambled Monday to get a handle on the situation. He met with Anglin and Esposito and said the parties involved came to a “much greater understanding” than they had on Friday.

De Blasio wouldn’t answer when asked if he apologized to Esposito over the confusion, saying only that he “had a good conversation with him.”

Esposito told WNYC Radio Tuesday night that de Blasio cleared up the confusion and that he respected the mayor’s decision.

“I serve at his discretion. If he decides it’s time for me to go, it’s time for me to go,” Esposito said. “He gave me the job, I thank him for giving me the job, he can take it away just as fast as he gives it.”

De Blasio said he wanted the agency, which is in charge of coordinating planning and response to all sorts of emergencies, from natural disasters to terrorism, to focus more on strategy and new challenges.

The mayor said the city will conduct a national search for a new commissioner capable of simultaneously handling multiple crises and emerging threats, such as the effects of climate change and new ways that terrorists could look to strike the city. He said he expected the transition to take months.

The mayor praised Esposito, a former high-ranking police official, as a skilled tactician and said he is talking with him about taking another role in the administration, but wouldn’t specify what that might be.

“Sometimes you can think someone is a good person who did good work and has a lot of strengths but you’re looking for something else,” De Blasio said.

De Blasio, a Democrat, made clear that Esposito’s ouster had nothing to do with the Nov. 15 snowstorm - a link made in articles that broke the news on Monday.

“I want to tell you straightforward that is a falsehood. That’s inaccurate,” De Blasio said. “I don’t blame you for making assumptions. It’s just not true. The decision was made well in advance of that.”

Esposito was out of town, on vacation, as the city’s first substantial snow fell. It halted buses, paralyzed roads across the metropolitan area and led to a rush-hour pileup that closed a level of the George Washington Bridge.

De Blasio said forecasts had led city officials to expect just an inch of snow, meaning that city buses weren’t equipped with snow chains and salters weren’t out treating the roads ahead of the storm.

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Follow Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak

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