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Co-op Living: Seward Park’s Summer of Discontent

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Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times told the strange story of the Seward Park Cooperative’s flawed board elections. This morning the hits keep on coming — the latest salvo from deposed Board President Margarett Jolly, who is telling fellow residents in a resignation letter, “I am removing myself from association with current efforts of the board to force a preordained election outcome.”

The Times article detailed serious problems with the June 14th election, stemming from the apparent malfunctioning of a voting machine in Building 3 of the Seward Park housing development, the largest of four cooperatives lining eastern Grand Street.  The story goes on to recount the board’s controversial decision to hold a limited re-vote, only allowing those who voted at the faulty machine to cast new ballots.

Jolly chose not to run for re-election, after a frustrating year serving as president. But when the faulty results came to light, the cooperative’s attorney recommended that the “old board” remain in control until the re-vote occurred.  This meant Jolly was continuing to serve as president.  But at last Thursday’s meeting, in what Jolly described as a blatantly political move, a faction of the interim board announced that, in spite of the fact that certified election results were not yet available,  it was “time for a change.” They then proceeded to appoint a new interim board, voting to remove Jolly as president. In response, Jolly and four other board members walked out of the meeting in protest.

In her letter, Jolly noted that each of the new officers are either candidates running for re-election or “insider election committee members.”  She concluded:

This majority Block (sic) of six Board members is highly motivated and invested in the specifics of the election outcome – and already using creepy tactics to manipulate the vote. I initially supported the re-vote of Building 3 because I trusted Bill King (election committee chair) was acting in a transparent and fair manner. Evidence since the meeting approving a Building 3 re-polling, including the cynical election of interim officers, which Bill was gloating and smirking through, shows otherwise… Since the only real role of the interim Board is to resolve the election problems and since the interim Board has the legal authority to ram the re-vote process down your throats, I am removing myself from association with this process and resigning from your tainted board.

The bloc Jolly referenced includes: sitting board member Eric Mandelbaum, who was defeated narrowly in last month’s election, as well as Bill King (the elections committee head), Charles Lieberman (elected interim president), Geordan Goldstein (elected interim treasurer) and two veteran board members (and lifetime Seward Park residents) — Karen Wolfson and Carlos Rosado.

Residents critical of King’s handling of the election problems question “what he knew” about the voting machine snafu and “when he knew it.”  Some board members say King was fully aware immediately following the election that there was a discrepancy of some kind, even if it wasn’t exactly clear what had gone wrong.  But polling results were made public anyway on June 16, two days after the election.  A week later, the board met to elect new officers.

Seward Park residents protested outside last Thursday's closed board meeting.

Brett Leitner, who was one of four victorious candidates on election night, said, “If we knew the day of the election there was a problem with a voting machine, why did the Voting Group (a firm hired to oversee the polling) release what seemed like certified results?”  Leitner,  attending a protest outside last week’s board meeting added, “Where was Bill King to stop them from doing that?… This whole thing is a travesty and a fraud and it gets worse and worse.”

King spoke with the New York Times about the allegations:

Mr. King… said the board was trying to remedy the error as expeditiously as possible. He insisted that he did not know that the machine had erred until two weeks after the vote, when he learned the impossibility of the votes it had reported… The dissident residents, Mr. King said, held a minority opinion. “Hopefully everybody can work together,” Mr. King said. “We have made every effort to do everything appropriately and we are doing everything appropriately.”

In an interview with The Lo-Down, Jolly said she had hoped (after her election as president last year) to unite a fractious board for the good of Seward Park’s shareholders.  But she said it became clear early on this goal was unachievable, because “one faction would not budge.”

The Times recounted the co-op’s transformation a decade ago from a middle-income, limited equity co-op to a private, market rate complex. “This change bred suspicions between original members and newcomers, who were often painted as agents of gentrification with a taste for increased maintenance fees,” reporter Cara Buckley wrote.  Michael Tumminia, who served as board president for one year before being unseated last year, has often found himself the target of attacks from residents who have portrayed him as an “agent of gentrification.”

In the past, Tumminia argued that he had simply sought to implement sound financial practices in a cooperative that had not “adequately focused on financial planning and financial management.”  In an interview, Tumminia said one of the main reasons he got involved in Seward Park’s governance in the first place was to help improve accountability and transparency on the board.  “Unfortunately,” he asserted, while “great strides have been made in recent years, those goals have not been entirely met.”  While the events of the past few months have been disheartening, he said, “I am hopeful brighter times are ahead and that the shareholders will speak loudly in the upcoming re-election on behalf of transparency and professionalism in the boardroom.”

In last month’s campaign, a group of shareholders with close ties to Tumminia placed a heavy emphasis on unseating Mandelbaum, a longtime board member who has fashioned himself a defender of Seward Park’s middle-income and fixed income residents.   Mandelbaum’s opponents have accused him as being a divisive influence on the board who acts only in his own self-interest.

But Mandelbaum, and the candidates he backed (Geordan Goldstein, Harold Aranoff and Karen Wolfson) have their defenders. Don West, who was board president for ten years (until 2005), recently sent a letter of his own to Building 3 residents. In it, he urged shareholders to support the Mandelbaum slate. “These are the candidates who oppose symbolic, annual increases, wanton large-scale discretionary spending, and waste,” West wrote.

Some worry the cooperative’s management company, Charles H. Greenthal & Company, will be forced out or will voluntarily call it quits. Jolly said she thinks there’s a strong possibility Greenthal will walk away from its co-op contract if Seward Park’s civil war does not end soon.

The Building 3 re-vote is scheduled for this coming Tuesday.  Leitner said a lawsuit is a possibility, as a last resort, to force the board to conduct a new election in which all shareholders have the right to vote. But, for now, it appears no legal action is imminent.

We requested interviews with Eric Mandelbaum, Bill King, Charles Leiberman and Karen Wolfson. They did not respond.

 

 Note: the author of this story, Ed Litvak, is a resident of the Seward Park Co-op.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. Ms Jolly’s letter is indeed disturbing, in that it seems to confirm many shareholders’ worst suspicions with regard to the ethics and intentions of just over half the sitting directors. I find it disturbing that Election Committee Chair Bill King, who released election results containing a glaring mathematical error, “smirked” his way through a boardroom coup in which he was elected Treasurer. How is this supposed to inspire shareholder confidence?

  2. Great article. Thank you Mr Litvak for expanding on the NYTimes article with this well-written and reasoned accounting of the events.
    As a shareholder I must say that this has been the most disturbing, and least transparent, of the elections held in Seward Park since my residence.
    Awful.

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