Community Board 3 rejected a proposal last night to rescind the suspension of the LES Dwellers, a neighborhood organization, but Chairperson Gigi Li said she would convene a group to draft new policies governing how the board deals with block associations.
Controversy has been swirling around CB3 and the high profile anti-bar group since Li decided to take the action against the Dwellers October 1. This week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer took the unusual step of criticizing the board, writing in a letter to Li and District Manager Susan Stetzer, that the decision “does not serve the interests of Community Board transparency and democratic representation.” He asked the board to reconsider its policy. The Dwellers sent an email message to many members of the community board, urging the creation of a CB3 task force to investigate the recent events.
Last night, board member Chad Marlow proposed a motion to reverse the suspension and to mandate that future actions against block associations must be approved by the full board. But a vote never took place because, through the use of a parliamentary maneuver, the board voted instead on an alternative motion to table the original proposal, which if it had passed would have represented a public embarrassment for Li. Only Marlow and one other member, Julie Ulmet, opposed the “motion to table.” Three others abstained.
Chairperson Li took the opportunity during the meeting to defend herself against what she called unfair attacks in the press. City lawyers, she indicated, had advised her not to comment publicly until they evaluated the situation. The law department concluded that the board was on firm legal ground in deciding to suspend the Dwellers. “It was not a decision I made lightly,” said Li, adding that it was a “judgement call” following consultations with the board’s executive committee.
Over a period of about six months, Li said, she met twice with LES Dwellers’ members Diem Boyd and Sara Romanoski to address concerns about the structure of their organization, whether they were holding public meetings and how the group was interacting with liquor license applicants. Some time ago, CB3 set up a new system in which the office only referred applicants to block associations which met so-called “transparency” requirements. Li said she takes seriously the community board’s role as a place in which all community members have an equal ability to voice their opinions. “That is a standard that I felt was being compromised by the interaction with this particular block association,” she said. At next month’s executive committee meeting, she explained, “I am proposing… that we revisit and re-establish new policies… It will be open to everyone, as all meetings are.” Members of the SLA Committee will also be invited to participate in the process.
Marlow, however, wanted the board to act immediately. “I think what has happened with respect to the LES Dwellers has not reflected favorably on this community board,” he said. “I’ve heard from all over the city about how people are outraged and confused… The community and the city are looking to see what this board does now. If we do nothing that would be affirming the decision with respect to the LES Dwellers… We cannot stay silent.” Marlow argued that CB3’s by-laws do not give the chairperson authority to suspend a block association and he said the move was a violation of the group’s free speech rights.
Another board member, Ayo Harrington, said she also had concerns about the decision. She acknowledged that the community board needed “some idea” who a given block association represents but asserted, “people have a right to define themselves however they want whether you like it or not.”
Li, however, received important backing from Dominic Berg, her predecessor as board chair. He noted that the by-laws and the city charter don’t address block association criteria at all, leaving the chairperson to use his or her best judgement. “What Gigi did in consulting the executive committee is exactly what I would have done,” he said. “She was given the latitude” to decide how to address the situation.
Anne Johnson, a longtime board member, said of the Dwellers, “they have no business being here as a block association… A block association traditionally is one street long, maybe two or three avenues long and they are there for the betterment of the entire block. This is an organization that represents an entire area and seems to be a one issue organization.” The organization, Johnson argued, was “holding us hostage” over one issue.”
Also speaking out last night was Ariel Palitz, a member of CB3’s liquor licensing panel and a bar owner. At the most recent committee meeting she lashed out at a member of the audience who was videotaping her and was admonished by the panel’s chair, Alex Militano, for her behavior. “I challenge anyone in this room who would say they would not be intimidated by a strange man videotaping them for hours and months,” she said. The incident, Palitz said, was an indication of the poisonous atmosphere infecting the community. “There are groups with the false belief that they are the only ones who represent the best interests of the community,” Palitz added. “Our local politics are quickly being reduced to a war, attacking board members as well as business operators.”
Another bar owner on the community board, Megan Joye, noted that applicants are required to contact approved block associations, a policy which gives the groups a lot of power (CB3 empowers the two sides to work out proposed operating guidelines). “I think we have to be really careful,” she suggested, “about who the block associations are, how transparent they are, how they hold their meetings… We have to have a firm and fast policy on block associations.”
The CB3 meeting came on the same day that the State Liquor Authority voted to approve a liquor license for Soho House, which is opening a new club on Ludlow Street. The Dwellers had fought the proposal vigorously. While Community Board 3 decided to oppose the application last spring, the board did not play a particularly active role in advocating its position before the SLA. In the New York Times yesterday, Diem Boyd said, “I’m very disappointed” in the Soho House ruling. “I think it’s a David-Goliath thing. They had big money and deep pockets. We think this opens a big can of worms.” Boyd added that the Dwellers were considering going to court to reverse the SLA’s decision. CB3’s Gigi Li has said the Dwellers are also threatening to sue the community board over the suspension. Last night, Boyd spoke briefly during a public session. She thanked Borough President Stringer for his support and even thanked CB3 for opposing Soho House.
In a recent article in The Lo-Down, the leadership of the Dwellers outlined their grievances with Community Board 3.