Last year, when the Harlem River Working Group held a series of well-publicized and well-attended forums in the course of planning new initiatives to rescue the shore of the Harlem River for community use, the community boards that border the river were vocal participants. All except Mott Haven’s Community Board 1.
The no-show board has frequently been conspicuous by its absence.
Just as frequently, its leaders have tried to stifle local voices.
When a controversy arose over city plans to develop a vacant lot where residents had planted a community garden, board leaders canceled the regular monthly meeting–the only time the gardeners would have had a chance to make their case.
When the board later rubber-stamped the development deal, it strengthened the argument that the cancellation was deliberate, to prevent the advocates from being heard. The development deal turned out to be corrupt, offering a windfall to a longtime political fixer.
Board leaders worked a variation on the same ploy in March, when, in violation of its bylaws, they switched the monthly meeting from its regular Thursday date to Wednesday, then canceled it for lack of a quorum. The reason given for the date switch was the upcoming Easter holidays, but residents who hoped to voice their concern about a number of issues could not be blamed for believing that the real motive was to avoid hearing them.
Now comes the debate over FreshDirect. No fair-minded person can be anything but embarrassed by the behavior of the community board’s leadership.
Fifteen months ago, District Manager Cedric Loftin tried to prevent the board from debating a resolution that complained of the lack of community consultation. Then in early June, after Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. dumped Mychal Johnson from the board because of his outspoken criticism of FreshDirect, Loftin prevented Johnson from speaking.
Later that month, Board chair George Rodriguez ended another FreshDirect meeting abruptly to prevent a vote on a resolution critical of the land and subsidy deal. Forced to call a special meeting to continue the debate, Rodriguez went one step further. When board member Michael Brady, a FreshDirect opponent, offered a resolution calling for the board to send a compendium of critical comments to the City Planning Commission, Rodriguez proclaimed that discussion was over and demanded that the board vote up or down on FreshDirect, ignoring Brady’s resolution.
As a video of the episode on the Herald Website shows, Rodriguez broke the board’s own rules to ramrod a vote while members of the board were calling out, “I don’t know what I’m voting on.” Only the hirelings of FreshDirect could claim an honest endorsement from the proceedings.
The issue, however, is not FreshDirect. Honorable people can disagree about how to calculate the gains and losses of its move to Port Morris. The issue is the lack of respect a too-long-entrenched leadership shows to the people they are supposed to serve.
Community boards are the smallest units of city government. They’re supposed to give ordinary New Yorkers the opportunity to communicate through them to the higher reaches of City Hall and its agencies. Boards aren’t obliged to adopt the opinion of those who ask for their support, but they do have an obligation to listen—something Mott Haven’s board too seldom does.