Saturday, July 21, 2007

Matters of Some Concern

"Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat."
-John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, 1981-1987

After throwing away an old t-shirt, it was clear that its inscription was still quite valid. In a corner, on the breast pocket read, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished." This is especially true in politics. It may be one of the reasons why "Scooter" Libby was, essentially pardoned. He was doing his job - and did it too well. And, if you hate Cheney, even a Democrat could sympathize with an employee who was doing what he was told to do - and did it well.

In politics, even community politics, we all make choices. While there are rewards (Community Board #2 mail, for example, addresses all of its members with the title "Honorable"), most of them are illusory and none of them pay. If you join the Community Board, keep your day job. It's not likely to lead to much income. Graft is frowned upon; even "Good graft" as George Washington Plunkett described it, is eschewed. And, this brings us to the issue of service on Community Boards - a forum for debate and an entity with only advisory power. Albeit, with some respect.

A big point is made of Conflict of Interest. Essentially, the concept means that if you are going to make a profit or have an interest that could potentially translate into some sort of personal gain - as a result of an issue being decided in a Community Board committee or Full Board decision - it should be divulged and you should not participate in voting on the matter.

But, there are gray areas. And, respectable Board members get caught up in the machinery when things go awry.

Tobi Bergman, current Chair of the Parks Committee, for example, found himself in the midst of a controversy several years ago and there was an investigation over the C&K matter by the COIB and Department of Investigation. Someone dropped a nickel on Tobi after nasty rumors persisted involving the prior Pier 40 RFP. His trip to Paris to meet with the C & K plan architects over one weekend -- involved more jet lag than Follies Bergere, but created shrieks from the floor of the Community Board. Jealousy and envy in Greenwich Village is naturally green; in SoHo it turns black. Arthur Schwartz also had to answer questions from investigators. The Friends of Hudson River Park and Al Butzel was viewed askance, Tobi was questioned and ultimately the plan to develop Pier 40 went nowhere - the Trust Board voted to reject it. Looking back, with the current Working Group and Advisory to the HRPT about to tell us that we should do nothing (again), the C & K plan wasn't all that bad. It was a far cry from the current Related "Vegas on the Hudson."

Prior to this, P3 had been involved with a lawsuit initiated and settled by Schwartz because C & K (which had the Pier 40 lease) had not afforded Pier, Park and Playground, which is a true kid-friendly organization in a sea of condo developments, the space that they were entitled to via the Hudson River Park Act. The lawsuit was settled by C & K and P3 was awarded $5000 monthly, which benefited the kids. Since he was an employee of P3, it also benefited Tobi.

In a subsequent Community Board vote involving C & K, after this settlement, Tobi participated and did not recuse himself. In retrospect, Tobi acknowledges that this was at least a mistake in terms of its appearance of impropriety.

But, does this rise to the level of say, Bob Rinaolo, being Chair of Business Committee -- overseeing votes on his own liquor license - or selling his Houston Street garage to the Village Nursing Home after contacting other Board members to "suggest" that they vote in favor it - never stating the fact that he owned it at a Full Board meeting that approved a variance for the buyer?

What is to be learned from this? What is to be learned from community service when a mistake (obviously Tobi thought that everyone knew about the lawsuit and settlement with P3 and C & K) - is investigated by prosecutors who have deep pockets and interrogated by, to quote a lawyer who defends people against prosecutorial zeal, investigators and police that are "not your friends." Tobi, is paying a $1000 fine, rather than spend multiples of that continuing to defend against the claim of conflict of interest.

Be careful rangers, think twice about community service, think three times about taking a stand in public, think four times about voting your conscience in an unforgiving environment - because even if it only appears that you could gain a nickel - the vultures may descend. It does not bode well for activism.

Any day now, any day.
Actually, it will be any day.

The SoHo Alliance and its attorney Stu Klein will soon be requesting that Trump SoHo move to Cleveland. Well, not exactly.

What will happen, in fact, is that the Department of Buildings will be asked to terminate the permit allowing Trump SoHo to be built. And, the response will be --- the same response that activists have received from the D.O.B. involving the illegal signs which have been plastered all over SoHo, NoHo and Hudson Square - they will either deny the request or ignore it.

That's when things are going to get interesting.

Sean Sweeney, Executive Director of the SoHo Alliance and the unofficial "enforcer" of SoHo -- is no stranger to controversy. And Stu Klein is an attorney to be reckoned with. Keep your eyes peeled on this one, but don't expect the cranes on Varick and Spring Streets to be idled just yet.

With Speaker Quinn reportedly kowtowing to Real Estate interests, Bloomberg eyeing a third-party race for President, and D.O.B. Commissioner Lancaster taking her cue from Robert Moses Doctoroff and the developer/fundraisers who employ her - don't expect an easy resolution to this sell-out of Hudson Square and SoHo. Only a change of zoning, an issue that is avoided by Quinn, will preserve Hudson Square in time to prevent these huge, completely out-of-context condo-hotel monsters from being built.

A matter of some concern has arisen at Community Board #2.

It appears that the Business Committee may be up to some of its old tricks. This periodically renegade committee, which is responsible for approving liquor licenses, seems to be reverting to methods and actions that had caused controversy in the past.

In its prior life, it was Chaired by Bob Rinaolo, a bar owner, and was packed with liquor license holders like Rosia Sanz, Judy Paul, Phil Mouquinho and packed with their friends and associates like Lee and Rosenwasser and Derr. It was a club that controlled who got a license and what community suffered from bar saturation. Tricks abounded under Rinaolo, and later Derr's tutelage. What used to be a Community-oriented Board became a Chamber of Commerce-oriented Board. Liquor license applicants were given priority over implementation of the 500-foot rule (Padavan Law) - which put the responsibility on the license applicant to justify his/her need, as opposed to the overriding community welfare.

Under Ray Lee, the current Chair, who was a Rinaolo and Derr stalwart - despite the fact that the newly configured committee is less heavily weighted with bar owners (still Sanz and Paul are bar owners) - questions of fairness have arisen.

A recent matter by "Forty Deuce on Kenmare" is a bar and burlesque application which has been floating around Community Board #2. A few community people appeared several months ago, strenuously objecting to yet another bar in this mostly Asian location - having difficulty with their English - but clearly making the point that "enough is enough" when there are 30 bars within 500 feet of the site.

Recently, the application was heard with only one-day notice - yet people appeared - but the committee approved the application nonetheless.

Apparently the Full Board let it ride through based upon the committee's report.

What we have here, folks, is a failure to communicate.

Brad Holyman, the new Chair of Community Board #2, has wielded a very soft knife and has tried to cut away softly at the corrosion on the Board. He has wended his way between the layers of presumed power bases and removed people who are incompetent and allowed people to stay in positions of some power because they are potential rivals or liabilities.

Ray Lee was allied with the Rinaolo/Derr/Mouquinho/Sanz bar owner/Chamber of Commerce group, which gained favor and power from the ability to grant liquor licenses to friends and associates.

Lee was their front man when the seat of the Chair of Business got too hot for the obvious players. And, he did what he was told - and may still be doing just that. He is conflicted and the committee is still conflicted.

Until the Community comes first, until the Padavan Law (500 foot rule) is appropriately applied and taken seriously so that it becomes the job of the applicant to justify why ANOTHER bar is allowed to open in a liquor license saturated location -the Community Board is NOT doing its job.

It is ironic that the current S.L.A. is more community friendly than the Community Board.

No comments: