Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Downtown Wars

Borough President Scott Stringer has started to reshape the Community Boards by introducing new members and discarding others. The new members know that becoming a member is an honor, and the existing members know that remaining on the Board depends upon service to the community. Those who have not been reappointed know that the community comes first and special interests come second, or not at all.

However, not everyone gets the message or likes hearing it.

While the Boards are elemental groups of citizens involved in community work for no compensation, it is also a body where all of the positive and negative currency of Democracy is always in full bloom. There are businesses vying for permission to operate (such a liquor licenses or sidewalk cafes), there are builders seeking to change the use of a parcel (changing from manufacturing to residential condos), and there are organizations seeking to expand their area of management (as with Business Improvement Districts).

Then, we come to the personalities and members who seek to improve their own standing in the community by creating power cliques within the Board. This could be a restaurant owner who fought the community over obtaining a liquor license in the past and rose through the ranks of the Chamber of Commerce. It could be a local landowner who wants to usher through developments by being involved in the process. Or, it could be a City worker who is branching out and starting a consulting firm - who wishes to collect clients based upon his "inside contacts" at the Board.

Fortunately, most people join the Community Board simply to improve the quality of life in their area of the community. And, most remain dedicated to membership for that reason alone, even though it is inevitable that they get caught up in the political crosswinds.

As John F. Kennedy once said, "Politics is the only game for adults." And, that is just as true at the Community Board as it is on the national scene. Only the players and the objectives are different. For Board members, there is another saying that resonates, "It's better to be a big shit in a little town than to be a little shit in a big town." Communities are microcosms in New York City and each Board is a little fiefdom that takes care of its own. It's possible to be a relatively important person in a community while having no importance at all with the general public. Many residents of SoHo, for example, have no idea who the Board members are from their area.

That's one reason why more entrenched Community Board members take membership on the Board very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they are willing to resort to any number of tactics to maintain their little clique and to maintain their power base. For some, this power base translates into homage paid by prospective applicants for licenses, developers wishing to build multi-million dollar condos, and existing business owners wishing to expand their operations.

In some cases, the reason is more direct. It may clearly advance the individual member's personal business plans and favorable decisions can be worth millions. It can also be about personal or politcal favors.

The war that has already begun is focused on Community Board #2 - and is continuing with this year's election contest. David Reck, a respected architect and Chair of the Zoning Committee, will be challenging Maria Derr, the current Chair of that Board.

It is not a war between Reck and Derr. But it is a war being waged between the residents of the communities of SoHo, Greenwich Village, NoHo, Hudson Square and Little Italy -- and political as well as business interests that do not value the quality of their lives. The citizens are tired of all night bars and lounges that interfere with their families, the traffic that pollutes their air and prevents them from safely crossing the street, the illegal billboards that display half-naked models or booze, and the developers who want to cut off their light and air to build bigger condominiums.

And, the residents are also pissed off that they, the community, don't come first - after the interest of businesses and special interests.

David Reck wants the Community Board to move in the direction of the Community, to support the needs of the community associations that want to improve quality of life for residents. Maria Derr was elected by the strong connection to Virginia Fields and support of the nightlife members on the Board who supported Fields' campaign for Mayor. Her reign is not about the community, but about sustaining the business clique and thier power on the Board.

The new Board members are welcome and it appears that Scott Stringer has added nearly 15 new community-oriented people to Board #2. They are a cross-section of what is needed on a community board. Independent individuals who are capable of considering the needs of the community first.

Those who remain on the Board and who are not happy about the changes fall into two categories. Those who think that more people should have been dropped from the board in order to reform it, and those who are doing whatever they can to discredit their opponents.

If you have followed the recent issues of the SoHo Journal, you know that the nightlife industry to some degree is represented by Board members like Bob Rinaolo, Roscia Sanz, Phil Mouquinho and Rick Panson. Maria Derr ran for Chair with their support and connections - as well as the connection to the former Borough President. Mouquinho has represented himself well and has appeared to be sensitive to the needs of the community - a community that he has lived in all of his life.

However, the clique that represents the nightlife community has started to resort to highly unethical maneuvers. Not just to maintain the power base but to denigrate community people and activists who support them.

"Anonymous" letters have started to surface once again. This seems to be a historical method used almost exclusively in Board #2 to discredit others that are political enemies. It is a testament to the rancor and petty vendettas drawn from a medieval characters like Machiavelli. With all due respect to our dearly departed, it was widely believed that the former District Manager at Board #2 had some information on using that particular ploy. And, he was directly responsible for allowing such letters to appear in everyone's mailbox.

The "Reform" group, among which are people like Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance and off-Board activists like Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, have started to experience personal attacks for all of their community efforts.

Jones has been the victim of a "slap suit" for her involvement in a recent Town Hall meeting seeking to deal with traffic, development AND liquor license issues. She and other activists have successfully blocked bars in NoHo that are supported by the Nightlife people on Community Board #2.

Sweeney, a vocal and sometimes curmudgeonly activist who tirelessly works for the benefit of Downtown Democrats and the SoHo community - has been the object of many of these personal attacks. He was jettisoned from important committees by Derr as soon as she became Chair.

According to Sweeney, "The real scandal is that leadership of Community Board 2 is using anonymous letters, lies and sleaze tactics to silence opponents."

In fact, rather than investigate an unsigned letter that blatantly attempts to get community activist members off the Board, Maria Derr (the Chair), simply comments that the people who are attacked should be investigated.

That is clearly the party line of the Nightlife power clique - and not the voice of a Board Chair who is outraged by unethical behavior by Board members in circulating missives written by character assassins.

While Derr wants victims investigated to satisfy her nightlife political allies on the Board, she should begin investigating the misdeeds of Board members who seek to circulate lies. Unless, of course, she knows more that we know about its origin.

We do know, though, that the letter was penned by Community Board #2 member or members. That is a fact that has been confirmed by a news source.

We have a new Deep Throat - only this time he or she is coughing up fabrications.

Let the Games Begin.

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