Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SoHo Flux

Real estate is still healthy in SoHo, so much so that Ian Schrager is buying what was supposed to be a 13-story condo. Instead we will have yet another hotel at 350 West Broadway. Besito's, the location where a contentious "Latino" bar/restaurant fought for a liquor license -- which seems to have been responsible for the still lingering divisiveness at Community Board #2, -- was recently the scene of several fistfights between owners and relatives and now has a "For Lease" sign on its front door. The former condo, now to be a hotel, is across the street from the former Besito's and is down the block from two other recently closed bars. Felix is still in operation down the block and still drags furniture out onto the street and allows patrons to drink on the sidewalk. But, what's a little carousing on the sidewalk among friends.

Until, the hotel opens.

Then, West Broadway might be the focus of a little cleaning up. Time to get the drunks off the street and make sure that the perennial flooding at Grand and West Broadway gets some long-awaited City attention. Funny, how big money starts to bring community concerns into focus. Too bad the artists didn't get more of that attention.

Which brings us to the point about real estate. Apparently, some people have awakened to the fact that only one side of West Broadway has achieved Landmark status. The east side of West Broadway and all of its cast-iron buildings have been protected for years (one of the reasons why there are no billboards on that side of the street) - but now there is a move afoot to landmark many of the buildings which do not have such protection. Several buildings along the west side of West Broadway are now being considered for a new thrust at landmarking them. We'll keep you posted.

And, in case you have been wondering, West Broadway has few restaurants with outdoor cafes. Paris likes them. SoHo doesn't. That's partly because of the fact that no meaningful action has yet to be taken to control the vendors that gobble up sidewalk space - so residents have consistently come down against allowing tables for diners on the sidewalks. The theory behind this is that pedestrians might want to be able to use the sidewalk once in a while. While there are several restaurants that do have outside tables, such as Barolo or Cipriani's, they are essentially not permitted.

Speaking of sidewalk cafes, much ado was made awhile back when Bob Rinaolo was Chair of the Business Committee on Community Board #2 and it was pointed out that for a bar owner to be passing judgment on other applicants for a liquor license - should be viewed as a potential conflict of interest. Especially, when Rinaolo's own licenses would come up for renewal while he was Chair of that committee. It clearly would have appeared to be a conflict.

The issue became quite heated at times and after about a year of waffling on the part of the then Borough President Virginia Fields, it was decided that Rinaolo had to go. Of course, he only moved to a different slot on the committee - but at least it didn't smell as bad when all of the other liquor license holders were calling the shots - as they still do today - under the guise of independence, with Diaz as Chair. The Chamber of Commerce and Nightlife people still firmly control the committee and Diaz steps to the music when it becomes necessary. It's just not all as obvious.

However, one must question whether the Sidewalks Committee of Community Board #2 whose Chair is Phil Mouquinho does not suffer from a similar potential for conflict of interest. Considering the additional business that a restaurant can enjoy at the expense of City real estate, is it proper for a liquor license holder who is seeking to add a sidewalk cafe to his own business - be Chair of a committee that approves such a sidewalk permit? Even if the Chair recuses himself from voting, should the members of a committee who are chosen by its Chair (yes, folks, the Committee Chair and the Board Chair agree upon who is on the committee) - should those committee members be expected to objectively make an independent decision in voting upon such a permit? This particular permit is not in question here - the real or imagined conflict is.

The Nominating Committee of Community Board #2 has made its decision as to which they feel is the best candidate for the next Board Chair and other positions. Seven members were selected by the Board to handle the delicate task of reporting their findings to the rest of the Community Board.

Now bear in mind that the Nominating Committee is a vestigial body - its real function is usually to warn the rest of the Board that they had better vote as suggested if they want to keep their committee assignments. This year's Nominating Committee was elected with the help of the colorful floor antics of Rick Panson, former owner of the Duplex and current hopeful for District Manager. He is a vociferous campaigner for Maria Derr and Company and is a jovial court jester who roots for the bar owners and their supporters. His suggestions for the Nominating Committee were well taken and all of his candidates were duly elected. Will Wieder, an activist and respected member of Community Board #2 became the Chair of that august committee. The committee did its work and reported to the Board that it recommended Maria Derr as the best-qualified candidate for Chair. No surprises here.

But, when Wieder was asked whether any other candidates were interviewed - since David Reck is also a candidate for Chair of the Board - he answered that no one else was interviewed. Why? Because the By-Laws do not require it. Require, is the operative word. With a straight face, augmented by vocal support from Shirley Smith, Wieder told the Full Board that there was no need to interview any other candidates. No pretense of Democracy here on this Board and not even any embarrassment over the fact that it's missing.

So, one would ask, who wrote the By-Laws, Joseph Stalin?

Lastly, don't expect a full accounting of Community Board #2 finances anytime soon. There's been a bit of waffling on that score. Seems that Chair Maria Derr promised that a financial statement for Board #2 was available at the Board office. As it turns out, though, after Board Member and attorney Larry Goldberg had questioned its very existence, what has been prepared and disseminated by Treasurer Roscia Sanz is a lot less than one would have desired or expected. While it seems unlikely that anything untoward has transpired, the evasiveness about what's been going on with the money is troubling.

Joseph Kennedy's contemporary Joe Kane once said "In politics you have no friends, only co-conspirators."
And Harry Truman said, "If you need a friend in Washington, buy a dog."
Machiavelli, that adolescent politician from the Renaissance, would have learned a few things at Community Board #2.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Community Board and Democracy

As we all deal with the Imperial Presidency, supported only by roughly 31% of the populace, many of us have come to cherish Downtown institutions that have historically been democratic and humanistic in their political views. However, there are political trends that would have us veering off in the direction of the conservative GOP mindset. At several levels of community politics, there is a real danger that closet Republicans among downtown politicos are trying to have their way with us.

Take Community Board politics, for example, which has a mandate to serve the community and is subject to "sunlight laws." This loosely refers to the principle that everything should be on the table, not under the table -- and that Board business should not be firmly in the grip of an elitist clique. However, recent Board #2 policy announcements have begun to sound suspiciously more like orders. Statements by Maria Derr, Board #2 Chair, have also clearly begun to sound downright dictatorial - especially those statements which direct members of the Board not to be privately meeting with and talking to community groups.

The reasoning behind this prohibition? That community board members might try to claim that they can control how the full board votes and ergo -- imply that they can influence the vote on certain important issues. Of course, anyone who believes that Community Board #2 could be subtly influenced or forced to vote any way on an issue, hasn't attended any recent shouting matches.

While it is not impossible that an errant Community Board member might foolishly believe that he or she could control a Full Board vote, one would have to assume that a neighborhood association or group of community activists could be duped by promises to steer things a certain way. Activists are not stupid people - and they certainly know how Community Board #2 functions.

So, what would be lost in prohibiting any Board member from talking to and discussing any potential agenda issue with members of the community, speaks to the very essence of Democracy. Community Board members must be free to discuss any issue -- after clearly and simply explaining that they do not represent the Full Board when expressing an opinion. But, they must be free to discuss any issue. At a Full Board vote, any member who has been in contact with community members and groups should simply state that they have had such meetings. Before the vote takes place.

With regard to people who have recently become Community Board members, a prohibition against freely talking with other members of the community is no different from telling members of Congress that they cannot discuss political issues with their constituents. That's nonsense.

The real danger here is the cloak of secrecy beginning to shroud Community Board #2 matters. The Imperial Presidency seems to have cloned an Imperial Chair and control seems to be the order of the day. Community politics is robust and contentious theater which allows for the confluence of ideas and opinions to play out on the stage. It is not something to be stifled or controlled and a Community Board is about the focusing of many ideas - not the pronouncement of the Controller of a Board's reins.

As an example of the misguided secrecy, there is the issue of the Board Manager position. After the death of Arty Strickler, a colorful figure who ruled from the District Manager position for many years, a vacancy has opened up for that position. So far, however, the process of selecting a replacement for that pivotal job has been anything but transparent. According to sources, there have been at least 50 applications for a job that will reportedly pay roughly $60,000 a year. But only 3 of the 50 applicants have been reported out of the selection committee and none have been identified. The selection process of who is being considered is murky, at best. The lone high profile applicant who is closest to the ruling clique on Board #2 is former bar owner and part-time court jester, Rick Panson. He certainly doesn't need the money after selling the Duplex, but in the political game it is who you serve and who serves you that matters. District Managers often surreptitiously control how the Board functions. His control of the Board #2 office would officially hand control of all Board functions, on a long term basis, to Business interests inside and outside of the Board.

There also seems to be a redundancy of members among the Nominating Committee for the upcoming election, the Committee handling the selection of candidates for District Manager, and the preponderance of Executive Committee members who now run the Board. In other words, a handful of people like Bob Rinaolo, Roscia Sanz and Chair Maria Derr are running the show and making the decisions - for everyone. Currently, they are the controllers. And secrecy is becoming more and more the norm. The Sun is definitely not shining on Board #2.

David Reck, the community-oriented candidate for Chair of Community Board #2 reports that there were some unhappy faces at a recent Executive Committee meeting - among those who were beginning to feel a little uncomfortable over the Imperial quality of answers to questions - none of which gave you that open and informative, democratic feeling.

The race between David Reck and Maria Derr for Chair of Community Board #2 should be interesting.

Recent rumors have it that Bob Rinaolo is removing himself from his position as Secretary, and Carol Yankay is leaving as 2nd Vice Chair. John Diaz, currently Chair of the Business Committee and appointee of Rinaolo and Derr will run for the 2nd Vice Chair position, Roscio Sanz, bar/restaurant owner and real estate mogul will remain as Treasurer, John Maggio, the eager Nightlife and Maria Derr supporter will run for Asst. Secretary and Arthur Schwartz will run for 1st Vice Chair.

Yes, folks, this will round out the Chamber of Commerce/Nightlife slate.

Derr and Rinaolo approved of Schwartz's running against Hoylman and Derr shares a law office with Schwartz. Enough said.

Schwartz is rumored to be dropping out of the ill-advised State Committee race which is planned with Lisa Cannistracci (although Schwartz denies this) - and will be challenging Brad Hoylman for 1st Vice Chair. The Deborah Glick, Larry Moss, Rachel Levine ticket is clearly unbeatable and Schwartz has realized this in time. But, one would imagine that Brad is less than thrilled over this turn of events. Schwartz has hit the ground running and has issued a letter attacking Larry Goldberg and tangentially David Reck, as well. This is a follow-up to the Anonymous letter that infected the Board a few months ago. Schwartz has become the policy arm of the Nightlife crew on Board #2, seeking a political stance after being summarily dropped from other, more visible political positions. Is he planning on attempting a run for Board Chair next? That's the usual intention for the 1st Vice Chair.

The jury is out on Schwartz's handling of the newly merged Parks and Waterfront Committee. There is considerable talk about splitting it again into two committees. And, the handling of that committee has been the subject of various levels of criticism. Recently, much of it has been focused on the Christopher Street Pier, local residents and the "Fierce" gang. Borough President Stringer has reportedly been weighing a move to step in and try to resolve the enmity himself, as a result of the drifting effort.

Holyman has been positioning himself to run for Chair within the next couple of years, putting him in line for a City Council race - and part of his neutral image (straddling the fence between the Community and Nightlife forces on the Board) has backfired. Schwartz's running for 1st Vice Chair is a slap in Holyman's face with the approval of Derr and Rinaolo. Schwartz had been dumped by Quinn and Duane in favor of Hoylman as District Leader - and it is also a rejection of Brad by the Derr, Rinaolo, Sanz, Maggio, Mouquinho group who offered him the 1st Vice Chair slot (positioning him for his own Chair run in two years). Between Holyman and Schwartz, it's now blood sport. And, blood sport is more of a Schwartz "no-holds-barred" political vendetta than Holyman is familiar with. The $64 question though, is whether the Community Board members should have to put up with more personality contests. It obscures the business of making decisions for the community's welfare.

Hoylman has done a good job as Chair of Traffic and Transportation Committee and has held his nose judiciously, while dealing with the anti-Community people still in power, and this is his reward. It is a good indication of how well you can trust the people who are "controlling" Board #2 right now. Stay tuned. The election nominations come this week (May 18th) and the election is held in June. Oh, and the fact that Rinaolo is not running for the Executive Committee is likely a ploy to continue to control the Board from behind the scenes. He advertises his affection for Machiavelli and has maneuvered the Board membership well with the help of the previous Borough President Fields, the Chamber of Commerce, the Nightlife association and an assortment of other bar owners that have packed the Board. The Anonymous Letter, which was circulated to defame certain opposition activist Board members, as well the recent attack by Arthur Schwartz attempting to smear Larry Goldberg (a Trust Board member and activist lawyer who supports David Reck's candidacy) - could not have happened without Rinaolo's tacit approval and consent as well as a green light from Derr. Rinaolo is de facto Chair of Board #2 and Derr is his political mouthpiece.

So, stay tuned rangers - we shall soon see whether the Community or Nightlife Association runs Community Board #2.

The Trust Board of the Hudson River Park is considered an honorable political appointment. There are 13 members -- 5 appointed by Pataki, 5 by Bloomberg, and 3 by Stringer. Clearly the Trust is overwhelmingly Republican and clearly it is controlled by a conservative agenda. The HRPT has accomplished some amazing things along our waterfront and where there were derelict piers, there are now places for children to play and for adults to exercise and entertain.

Recently, however, there has been a proposal among the Trust Board members to limit the information that is "leaked" to the community. It is a little too reminiscent of what we have all come to know as a "gag order." In a bid to create a new ethics code, Trust Board members are being asked to vote on rules that would prohibit discussing HRPT business with the community. The proposed terminology reads:

"Trust Directors shall avoid any unauthorized ex parte communications concerning a pending matter and avoid comment about such a matter outside the Trust Director's
official duties."

It's the wrong message to give the community and we should express our unhappiness about implementing such a rule among the Trust members. The Community has a right to know what is being discussed and what the Trust has in store for us. The so-called conflict of interest in discussing HRPT business plans with the public, is window-dressing for another veil of secrecy that takes community comment further away from discussion about the issues.

Beware the Imperial Presidency, the Controlling Community Board Chair, and a Secretive Trust. It's not simply a matter of civil rights, it is a matter of our right to know and approve or disapprove of how are lives are to be lived.