Friday, June 30, 2006

New Beginnings

During a recent interview with Assembly member Deborah Glick, there came the unsettling realization that defending the community from encroachment on all sides is a daunting task. The path for any activist as well as a community-oriented politician (as is Deborah Glick), is risky and incredibly difficult - full of barbs and punji traps.

We spoke about a few issues that affect residents in the most basic of ways.

Housing - shelter -- is one of those most essential needs that affects all of us so fundamentally. And, anyone who depends upon the stock of rent-stabilized or rent-controlled apartments - especially in Manhattan - are especially prone to becoming targets of changes, attacks, scams, legal decisions (or indecisions), and bureaucratic ineptness, all of which can effect tenancy. Landlords are always looking for novel ways to take that rent-regulated apartment away from a tenant. Or, at the very least, multiply the rent many-fold.

Glick discussed two of the more recent attempts to deprive tenants of a place to live. One is the recently revised notion of "demolition." The accepted fact is that if a building needs to be torn down, tenants have to leave. But the most recent variation on this theme has the landlord doing a "partial" demolition for which the express purpose is evicting tenants with the help of the DHCR. Often, the current ploy of partial demolition is really a cosmetic matter that hardly meets the criteria of demolishment in any language - in Togo it might come closer to the word for Fraud. But, so far, City government is playing ball with developers. Glick feels that demolishment should be re-defined in legal terms as the total razing of a building so that this does not become a rampant new means whereby developers legally evict tenants.

Similarly, the cute little moniker "landlord recapture" has been another soon to be abused concept. Recently, a 14 family apartment building was purchased by an individual who proceeded to begin evictions against all of the tenants in the building. This Lower East Side landlord claimed that he needed space for his growing family. This novel approach, if it weren't so ludicrous, is currently being tested in the courts and could have a potentially devastating effect upon the lower and middle class housing stock in Manhattan.

Deborah Glick is running for re-election and should be vigorously supported - few of our elected officials and even fewer of our Community Board representatives have bothered to make these issues known. The City and State have done a miserable job in protecting our rent-regulated housing stock and have pandered to the development of luxury coops and condominiums. It is a short-sighted view which destroys the vibrancy, diversity, and artistic creativity of our communities.

For those architecture lovers out there, Doris Diether has put the Victorian Society's proposed expansion of the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District on the Community Board #2 agenda. The Landmarks Committee will be meeting next Wednesday, July 5th and the Zoning Committee will also be reviewing this issue. Shawn Brennan, the vice president of the Victorian Society, will be presenting the proposal which was described here a few weeks ago. For those of you who have any interest in the possible changes, here is a first-hand opportunity to see what may be in store for SoHo.

The dust has settled, the axes have been buried, and the invectives have all been hurled at Community Board #2. The election between sitting Board Chair Maria Derr and Zoning Committee Chair David Reck was widely anticipated and closely watched by residents, Board members and several politicians for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Derr has been closely associated with the takeover of Community Board #2 by the Chamber of Commerce and Nightlife pro-business, pro-bar faction on the Board. Derr was their successful representative to which she added the Passanante name. While her uncle Bill was liked by many old-timers in the Village, he meant nothing to residents of SoHo or Hudson Square and apparently Derr was rumored to be not all that close to him either - until it became politically helpful.

Maria Passanante Derr, as she is now apparently known, won the election handily. And, while there were dirty tricks (is this not politics?), she gave a great speech and handled herself with composure and even-handedness throughout the election evening.

She even permitted a second vote on an issue due to the fact that some Board members were in a hall outside the voting chamber -- which turned out to negatively affect a liquor license issue. Unusual for her previous behavior. Was it a good show, or was it a new beginning?

Despite the fact the old Bill Passanante was considered a bag of wind by some; a little suspect by others; a prescient crusader for gay rights by others still -- and despite the fact that Carmine DeSapio was also a relative and a politician but was not mentioned - Maria did well. She now stands on her own. She no longer needs old Bill or Carmine and she should dispense with that questionable baggage.

So, what does this mean for SoHo, which counts for nearly a third of Community Board #2 -- but is represented by less than half of that in voting privileges?

Not much.

An political insider has speculated that the vote was indicative of a core group of bar-owners wishing to hold on to control of the Board and also those who owe fealty or who are afraid of them; then there are the Greenwich Village historicals (not to be confused with GVSHP), and those who mistakenly believe that Passanante equals Kennedy and Camelot.

And, then there were those who just liked Maria Derr better than David Reck.

Reck is a fighter who has been aggressive and passionate. He delivered a strong, sobering message - that the Board has lost its direction and that those outside of the Board speak disparagingly of the way the business of the community is being handled.

Derr's message was smoothe and conciliatory. She spoke of change and spoke of the need to move on and put negativity and divisiveness behind. She cited what she believed to be changes on the Board that had already been made in favor of the community.

Neither of them could hold a candle to Lewis Black, but then again, this isn't supposed to be stand-up comedy even if appears to be. And, there wasn't a funny comment all evening - until Phil Mouquinho joked about losing all three of the contentious licenses coming in front of his committee.

Unfortunately, that was the one funny remark that wasn't funny.

The message gotten from this election was not that many Board members are afraid to vote any way but the way they are told (for Derr), on pain of losing their financial connections and Board status;

It was not that the Board membership can now sit back for another year and wait for Brad Hoylman to bring some balance back to Community Board #2;

It was not that the Nightlife contingent on the Board managed to threaten, smear, or distort their way into buying another year of control.

It WAS that the activists on the Board, along with newly appointed members, have forged a new alliance. There is now a new bloc of voters on the Board who see issues first and foremost from the perspective of the Community. It was a portentous change that augurs well for all of us. And, it was apparent as well in the spirit of change evident at the Quality of Life forum held at the Puffin Room this past week. Zella Jones of the NoHo Neighborhood Association, Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance, the new Commissioners of the SLA, the police brass and numerous elected officials and their representatives were all in attendance. Significantly, there were representatives of 26 community organizations from lower Manhattan at this "Summit."

There is a new working alliance forged between members of Community Board #2,the community organizations and the political structure of City government to effectively deal with Quality of Life issues.

The new S.L.A (State Liquor Authority) had two of its three members at the Forum, Daniel Boyle who is the Chairman and Noreen Healey -- a new member and resident of Brooklyn Heights, is both a former prosecutor and a Democrat. It's nice to have another woman in power as well.

Boyle is a former prosecutor who helped clean up the police corruption in Schenectady and is expected to clean out the cobwebs and anti-community sentiment at the S.L.A.
State Senator Marty Connor, who is our SoHo representative, is credited with having been instrumental in helping us get the new Democratic representative to the S.L.A. -- recommended by Governor Pataki and confirmed by the Senate. Connor's influence and friendship with Pataki has apparently paid off for Downtown. Remember that when you think about the fact that of the last ten contested 500-foot-rule hearings, seven were denied by the newly reconfigured S.L.A. Connor is facing re-election and we should support a candidate who produces for the community. We need people like Marty, especially in our fight against oversaturation of bars and support for quality of life issues.

The Forum was congenial and respectful and there appears to be a clear path towards a working relationship on the quality of our lives -- including problems with bar oversaturation, pollution and traffic. Could illegal sign enforcement be far away?

And, as for the new beginning promised in her campaign speech at the Community Board election --after being elected Maria Derr proceeded to remove her opponent David Reck as Chair of the Zoning Committee.

Some might just see that as retaliation, not a new beginning.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Elemental Democracy

It's never been said that politics is easy or always particularly honest. The long history of sub rosa deals, chicanery, dirty tricks and even murder in some cases, is the stuff of novels as well as election lore. From the Borgias to the Kennedys, from Julius Caesar to George Bush, it is a trail of misdeeds and subterfuge that is enjoyable to read about.

It's a tough business and the stakes are big. Big money, big egos and most often big power.

But, aside from the fact that almost any kind words or actions are covered under a cloak of immunity, the rules covering Community Board conduct are fairly transparent. Or, at least, they are supposed to be. As an advisory body, there is not much real power in and of its role as the representation of the will of the community. And, it is the body that represents the community - which means the residents, institutions and businesses in its area or territory.

The power on Community Board #2, which is about to have its second election in two years, is not currently vested with the community. It is centered upon a few people who are connected to the Chamber of Commerce and have ties with the Nightlife Association.

While these organizations provide valuable representation to their members, they do not represent the residents of the community in which they operate. They exist to further their own interests.

As a result, neighborhoods experience pressures from organized entities and their paid representatives who lobby for bar proliferation, expansion of institutions and development pressures that can and do overwhelm residents and activists alike. It takes a lot of hard work to thwart the investment of big money.

That is why the Community Board is so important. The will of the community can stand in the way of high pressure efforts to push aside the will of the people.

In the recent past, the groundswell of support for a more community-oriented Community Board #2 has unleashed some serious players who don't give a damn about what residents want. They are paid consultants to push a business and sometimes self-serving agenda (which is not interested in the wishes of the residents first). Members on the Board who have allied themselves with this anti-community/pro-business agenda, like Rick Panson, Bob Rinaolo, Phil Mouquinho, Roscia Sanz, John Maggio, John Diaz and until recently Mark Rosenwasser - have coordinated efforts to control the Board sometimes for self-interest. Using whatever means necessary.

While this is not surprising, the methods used certainly have been. After all, this is not supposed to be the Spanish Inquisition.

But an "anonymous" letter was circulated to smear those who opposed the wishes of community-unfriendly members. It was partially crafted to punish those who used methods of "managing" an election win - and discussed it openly. The letter was unsigned and shortly after discredited - in part due to the balanced reporting which appeared in The Villager and written by Lincoln Anderson.

Then more recently, a series of letters were circulated by Arthur Schwartz and Rick Panson - ostensibly to support the waning credibility of Maria Derr, the current Chair.

The Panson letters attacked Larry Goldberg for seeking the Board financial statement and, foolishly, attacking Councilmember Alan Gerson.

However, it turns out, that it was not just a letter by Rick Panson. At the very least, it was a combined effort by Maria Derr and Rick Panson - possibly with the help of others in that ruling clique.

Derr has admitted to this and it is now public knowledge after having been exposed previously in this blog.

Shades of the "Anonymous" letter? Don't you think?

The involvement of a close personal friend of Maria Derr's, Alan Roskoff, who has been linked to the release of the "anonymous" letter, and who is a PR character seeking to gain Nightlife Association accounts for his PR firm, the Durham Group - presents all of us with a serious issue to ponder.

Having admitted to the fact that she was involved in creating the letter attacking Alan Gerson, having been personally closely connected to Alan Roskoff, and having been closely aligned with and supported by the Nightlife contingent on the Board - is there any doubt as to how and why all of these attacks were coordinated?

This is NOT just business as usual. This rises to the level of serious unprofessional conduct, at the very least. We are all, then, subject to the wrath of outside groups controlling the Board. That cannot be permitted to continue.

Between Bob Rinaolo with his inside deals and Machiavelli fetish, Phil Mouquinho with his Conflict of Interest as Chair of Sidewalks, Derr and her complicit involvement with various letters, Panson's phony high dudgeon over Gerson's criticism of Derr, and the obsequious behavior of "Dr." Maggio - we have a cast of characters who do not have the community first in mind.

The question becomes this: do residents want a Community Board that is ruled by power-seeking group that caters to business forces - to the exclusion of the residents. And, do representatives appointed to the Board want a Community Board that silences opposition with the threat of retaliation and character assassination - by any means necessary?

It should be clear to all that these personal attacks have been orchestrated to silence opposition and that they are originated by or sanctioned by the current group of bar owners, Chamber of Commerce groupies and their PR operatives.

Borough President Scott Stringer, Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilmember Alan Gerson, Assembly member Deborah Glick are all watching this election - and have all counseled fair play and perspective. They want Community Board #2 to move forward - to an era of cooperation and fairness AND Democracy.

Let's give them what they want.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Letters,... We Get Letters.....

Donald Trump is coming. Or, it seems that he plans to do so in the near future. Apparently, the hotel condominium proposed at 246 Spring Street, is running up against some opposition fairly quickly. The 45-story building would dwarf anything nearby and would violate current zoning since it would not be a transient hotel, but would instead be a condo residence with hotel style accommodations. Hotels are "as of right" in a manufacturing zone where this would be built, but residential developments require a variance. Hotels with the ability to sell or lease the units are not permitted at all.

Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has entered the fray already. The Trump development is similar to the 848 Washington Street proposal that was defeated nearly two years ago and has prompted GVSHP to take a position. Letters have been sent to community leaders and the elected officials in preparation to what appears to be a looming battle.

Community Board #2's Zoning Committee is expected to hear the application as soon as this month.

Speaking of letters, recent controversies at Community Board #2 prompted Councilmember Alan Gerson to send a letter that was critical of the level of animosity on Board #2. He made mention of a number of incidences that were unpleasant reminders of the friction. The fact that its Chair, Maria Derr, invited new appointees and specifically did not invite opposition members to a "Community Board" meet and greet - was the source of some of Gerson's irritation. A political event was disguised as Board meeting.

In response to Gerson's letter, Rick Panson, Chair of the Environmental Committee, former owner of the Duplex bar, candidate for District Manager, and newly appointed Voice of the nightlife faction on Community Board #2, wrote a scathing letter attacking Alan Gerson for his "outrageous" assertions.

Alan is an institution downtown. He's a lawyer and Columbia graduate, past Chair of Community Board #2 - and just a nice guy. It was no doubt hard for Alan to send a letter that is critical in the first place. Negativity and criticism are not Alan's forte. But, since some of his appointees on the Board were among the disinvitees, he felt he had to speak. Alan was also upset over the "anonymous" letter that slandered a few activist Board members.

However, attacking Alan is generally not tolerated well Downtown. And, since Panson himself has been criticized for playing adolescent pranks at Board meetings (using spitballs on fellow Board members, for example), it's hard to understand how he became the new self-appointed "conscience" of Board #2.

But, the fun doesn't stop there.

In yet another round of letters, Panson developed another new friend, attorney-activist Larry Goldberg.

Goldberg's criticism of Chair Maria Derr's administration has come to a head over his demand for the Board's 2006 financial report, which has never been proffered by Treasurer Roscia Sanz. Goldberg had to "foil" the information in order to get it. The interchange between Panson and Goldberg is reminiscent of the old days when Board members were treated to the verbal ping-pong game between Ed Gold and Arty Strickler.

Except for one big difference.

Goldberg has been asking for a financial statement and Panson has been sitting on his high horse saying -- well, you now have it. Except, that's not quite true. What Sanz and Derr produced is a projection for 2007. No financial statement, as you may know it, for 2005/2006 has been produced so far. So, why the smoke screen?

What's missing?

Was it the fact that Arty Strickler, the now dearly departed District Manager, was pulling down $76,000 a year. And, that no one seems to remember the Board ever having approved that. Despite the questions, however, former Chair Jim Smith advised us that at least $70,000 was supported by the Board.

Or, was it that the Board leadership didn't think anyone was entitled to the information? Or, even worse, that Sanz didn't really know how to produce it?

There is no doubt in some people's minds that Strickler "worked for" certain Board members like Bob Rinaolo and those whom he supported - and others in the current mood of distraction. Those whom Arty did not like, got no cooperation or inside information - or guidance about how to handle Board matters. He was also invaluable in helping to manipulate election campaigns. And, apparently, he was well paid for this. He knew a lot of people -- on, and under the radar screen.

People like Allen Roskoff -- who has recently been linked to newly circulating negative comments about David Reck, who is challenging Maria Derr in an unprecedented challenge for Chair of Board #2. Roskoff is also a nightlife operative with a small PR outfit called the Durham Group and who is a close friend of Maria Derr. The current "dirty tricks" campaign, or rumors, attributed to Roskoff revolve around David's supposed negativity towards women (something that David's wife finds ludicrous and insulting). Of course, it is insulting. That's the point of false rumors. To insult and to undermine.
Board members have been receiving anonymous calls on the eve of a very close election -- and this campaign is starting to smell like the PR placed in the media which linked Roskoff to the "anonymous" letter at Board #2.

It also doesn't help that Panson, in his zeal to help Maria Derr's campaign -- seems to have originated his attack on Alan Gerson using a computer whose signature bears Maria Derr's name. A nasty slip-up.

It certainly links all of the players in this Nightlife V. Community election.

This Thursday, June 22nd, Board #2 gets to choose whether the nightlife people will continue to run things under Maria Derr -- or, whether the community-oriented member, David Reck, will change the course of the Board. Stay tuned rangers.

The Garden Party was a rousing success. At Pier 54, despite the threat of rain, there were at least a few thousand people. They ate the food, shook the hands of politicians like Christine Quinn, Andrew Cuomo, Alan Gerson and Mark Green, and danced. There were lots of kids, ice cream, and some "fabulous" attendees such as Empress Demi Tasse and James, who vogued for the cameras. This LGBT function has arrived politically and draws the elected officials from downtown. It's not to be missed.
Even Melissa Sklarz stopped to chat at the SoHo Journal sponsor table. She's doing well and misses Board #2 already. Well, maybe not until after the current election.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Matter of Principle

On a recent walk through SoHo, an activist lamented that she has been devoting a decent part of her life to the fight between the community and the liquor applicant known as LoLa - a bar restaurant bistro that has been insistent upon opening in SoHo at 15 Watts Street.

The history of this case, now at the Appellate Division court - after being denied a license by the Community Board, granted a license by the S.L.A., denied a license by the State Supreme Court, and now on appeal - is a long and annoying one.

What is new about this case is not the case law. And, it's pretty clear that the community has been fighting to eliminate the proliferation of bars in SoHo. No, what is new here, are the extremes to which the applicant has been willing to go to win the case.

As described by the activist, among other tactics, private investigators have been hired to track down neighbors in an attempt to intimidate her and other activists. This, of course, comes on top of the $30,000 cost for legal fees to fight the case. And, that's the cost for fighting only one bar, mind you.

This is a wake-up call for all downtown activists and politicians -- that the nightlife people are desperate to eliminate any objection to new bars in our neighborhoods, and is an indication as to how serious the issue of limiting liquor licenses has become.

It's no news that the Nightlife Association and its allies have been working overtime to discredit activists and anyone else perceived to be an enemy of "all bars all the time." Foolishly, their thinking is that unless you can accept wall-to-wall bars in your community, you must therefore oppose any bars or restaurants. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Sources have recently revealed that through a paid public relations consulting entity operating under the name of the Durham Group, Allen Roskoff, has now been linked to the notorious "Anonymous Letter" which mysteriously appeared and circulated Downtown this spring. The unsigned letter, which was a coordinated effort by bar-owner members and their employees on Community Board #2, was part of a smear campaign to attack those who sought to limit the spread of liquor licenses in SoHo. It was also an attempt to strike back for an expose which appeared in the SoHo Journal. Apparently Roskoff, a P.R./political insider who prefers to work under the radar was reportedly working his contacts just as the letter surfaced. Could Roskoff have had advance notice of the fact that the letter was being written? The P.R. effort seems to have been launched for the purposes of helping to place the fraudulent letter in order to give it legs -- and, in order to satisfy existing or hoped for nightlife clients. Not to mention his friends on Community Board #2. Nasty stuff for activists to have to put up with. Roskoff is a behind-the-scenes operator who is a close personal friend Maria Derr, Chair of Community Board #2, and has contacts in several political circles.

We clearly need laws that protect our residents - or, we need enforcement of existing laws - that make it a crime to harass people with "legal" techniques such as private investigators and pressure tactics similar to debt collectors that try to embarrass. This is an issue that needs to be addressed in the upcoming "summit" with the City. For updates and information on this, contact Zella Jones at the NoHo Neighborhood Association. A follow-up to the previous Town Hall-style meeting with several community groups and the elected officials will be held on June 26th at the Puffin Room. It will be a Quality of Life Forum and should not be missed. Please note that it is by invitation only, so please make arrangements in advance.

Larry Goldberg has not been a happy camper. First he gets a letter from disgruntled Board #2 member and former Waterfront committee and HRPT Advisory adversary Arthur Schwartz, saying some not nice things about his community work, then the Villager has been less than supportive towards him, and to round things out, Maria Derr has treated him in an off-hand way after he requested a copy of the Board #2 financial statement. Larry had had enough, considering all of the hard work he's done.

As reported last week, at the last Full Board meeting, Larry asked to see a copy of the Treasurer's report and was told by the Chair that it would be available at the Board office. However, since that was not the case, Larry requested it again - and got only a list of deposits and checks. Not a financial statement.

So, after all of the shuffling and scraping and no financial statement, Larry did the only thing that a serious activist-attorney could do - he sent Derr a FOIL request.

Yes, folks, in order to get the information which the Board is required to make available to its members - Larry Goldberg has had to FOIL Community Board #2 for the information. Hopefully, there will be compliance and we can find out if the accounts have been handled well under Treasurer Roscia Sanz' management.

The Conflict of Interest matter involving Chair of Sidewalks Committee Phil Mouquinho has been bandied about by several Board members and is misunderstood by some.

The COIB has ruled, as it did with Bob Rinaolo when he was Chair of Business, that one may not be an owner of a business (bar/restaurant) and also Chair a committee which approves or renews a license for that business. Essentially, it has nothing to do with how good (or bad) a job the person is doing on the committee. It also makes no difference whether or not the person recuses himself, as Mouquinho has. Prior to taking that position, as Chair, he was advised that if he were to bring his own application in front of the committee - he could not be Chair.

This is a matter of Board policy, a matter of record, and a matter of prior rulings by the COIB.

Of course, the rules may only apply to some of us.