Aug. 30, 2015 By John O’Reilly, retired attorney and former public official
“You ain’t seen nothing yet. B-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-nothing yet.”
Randy Bachman’s lyrics written in 1974 provide a perspective on the emerging tidal wave of development in Sunnyside/Long Island City and the potential decking of the Sunnyside Rail Yards for possible housing and commercial developments. On the flip side, the lyrics also describe how Queens Community Board 2 treats requests for important public information.
By now, most people are aware of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s February 2015 proposal to build 11,250 affordable housing units over the Sunnyside Rail Yards as part of a plan to generate 200,000 new and preserved affordable apartments over a 10 year span. Through application of various formulae and cost recovery factors, the Sunnyside Yards proposal is estimated to provide for market and affordable housing units to accommodate approximately 110,000 to 120,000 people, meaning there would be a big new neighborhood in the midst of Sunnyside/Long Island City approximately the size of the City of Albany.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation has started the process to study the feasibility of decking over the rail yards for housing development and related purposes, and if the plans move forward, the proposal would be considered and acted on by Queens Community Board 2 (CB 2). The DeBlasio plan would be in addition to the development that has already occurred and is about to take place.
There is a certain House of Cards sense to this development activity, the feeling that there are major political and money interests working behind the scenes, away from public view. Most of the people I talk to have a pervasive sense of helplessness to change the course of the transformation from local to mega, from a neighborhood to a metropolis.
Is Sunnyside/LIC’s future the fortress of glass and steel arising on the West side of Manhattan over the Hudson Yards, which is 1/6 the size of the Sunnyside Yards? Do every day people have any say? One answer is to participate at the community board level, which is CB 2. Of course, meaningful public participation requires access to information and the fostering of openness and transparency by the community board. We’ve often heard the leaders of CB 2 say that they want to inform the public and have an open Board, but experience shows they fail in carrying out this important responsibility. According to Frank Underwood, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
Some background is needed. After more than twenty years as CB 2 Chair, Joseph Conley suddenly resigned his position at the December 4,, 2014 meeting, having notified Board members by email and telephone calls just two days prior.
Notwithstanding the abrupt change after two decades, the Board by reported vote of 22 to 12 proceeded with the election of a new Executive Board which turned out to be continuation of the existing four Executive members, one new member (for Conley’s seat) and the installation of Pat O’Brien, previously 1st Vice Chair, as the new Chair. According to news reports, Mr. Conley at the time indicated that after serving two decades it was time to move on, while also expressing gratitude for the honor of having served as chair for such a lengthy period. Everyone believed that after long service, Mr. Conley was leaving the public scene and political figures, friends and associates “feted him at a farewell party [December 26, 2014] at Dazies Restaurant in Sunnyside.” Sunnyside Post December 31, 2014 .
It appeared that the final-final chapter on Mr. Conley’s activity was decided prior to the CB 2 meeting on April 1, 2015. At this meeting, Barry Grodenchik, director of Community Boards for the Queens Borough president announced, “Tonight is the first evening in 30 years that former chairman Joe Conley is not a member of Community Board 2”.
It was reported that Mr. Conley and other former members were replaced to bring in new blood, to have a Board more reflective of the community and with younger members, and to address the lack of transparency in the Board’s handling of community issues. Essentially, the old insiders club was being broken up and sunlight allowed in. Mr. O’Brien indicated he was fully on board with the transparency movement, and that he was working on an “advanced community board website” which supposedly as of April 1st was about two weeks away from going live. Sunnyside Post April 8, 2015 .
From the start of his tenure as Board Chair, Mr. O’Brien spoke about the need to revamp CB’s website and to get the Board involved with social media, indicating at the January 5, 2015 meeting that the website would be updated and that the Board would have a Facebook page. At the February 5, 2015 meeting reference was again made to the new website, at the time expected to be operational by the end of March 2015. Mr. O’Brien was quoted as saying at the February meeting, “Any document that is public, we aim to put it out there, I want people to know the facts so we can have a more informed discussion.” Sunnyside Post Feb. 25, 2015 . The Board minutes reflect that at the May 7, 2015 meeting, Mr. O’Brien said that the new website was scheduled to be launched at the end of May.
As of August 29, 2015, CB 2’s website is still the same clunky, outdated page, difficult to navigate or to obtain meaningful information. The opening page promotes a FDNY event taking place on May 2, 2015 and a traffic advisory starting March 23, 2015. According to the Board’s current web site, the Board has no meetings scheduled for the remainder of 2015. Documents provided to the Board in connection with the Phipps affordable housing proposal and the Department of Transportation renovation of Queens Blvd are not available on the website notwithstanding long established requirements of State law. The Facebook page is barren.
Transparency and informing the public? I wanted to find out if the Board’s website was discussed at the June 4, 2015 meeting (and about developments concerning Mr. Conley discussed below). The minutes are not published on the Board’s website, so I made a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request for the minutes on July 29, 2015. As reflected in the email communications linked to this article, after several attempts to get even an acknowledgement of my FOIL request, CB 2 District Manager Debra Markell Kleinert on August 11, 2015, denied access to the essentially because they are in draft form and not yet approved by the Board (there were no Board meetings in July and August).
The denial of access to minutes not yet approved by the Board is contrary to State Law and contrary to the practice of the neighboring Queens Community Boards, CB 1 (which covers the neighborhoods of Astoria, Old Astoria, Long Island City, Queensbridge, Ditmars, Ravenswood, Steinway, Garden Bay, and Woodside) and CB 3 (which covers the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, North Corona, and La Guardia Airport). As I pointed out to CB 2 on August 17, 2015, the State Open Meetings Law provides in relevant part that the minutes of a Board meeting are to be made available two weeks after the meeting regardless whether the minutes have been approved by the applicable Board. I received on August 12, 2015 from CB 1 copies of draft minutes of Board meetings conducted on June 16 and June 29, 2015, which have not yet been reviewed or approved by CB 1. Like CB 1, CB 2, does not meet during July and August. The minutes were provided by CB 1 pursuant to a FOIL request. Likewise, CB 3 provided to me on August 21, 2015 draft minutes of the Board meeting on June 18, 2015 which have not been reviewed or approved by its Board, which also does not meet during July and August. These minutes were provided pursuant to the same FOIL request made to CB 2 and CB 1.
Mr. Conley’s ongoing role with CB 2 and CB 2’s behavior about his ongoing connection is especially troubling. Although the Borough President’s representative announced on April 1st the end of Mr. Conley’s Board membership and notwithstanding the well attended farewell party at Dazies last December 26th, Mr. Conley maintains authority over important community issues, such as the Phipps Corporation plans for a 10 story, 220 units apartment building on Barnett Ave. Sunnyside Post August 26, 2015, as a “public member” of the Board’s Land Use and Transportation Committees. As a public member of the Land Use Committee, Mr. Conley potentially will review and vote on recommendations to the full Board on the Sunnyside Rail Yards developments discussed above. The Land Use Committee recommendations are almost always followed by the full Board.
In October 2014, Mr. Conley was the first public official in the recent revival of interests to deck over the Sunnyside Yards to recommend study of building housing units over the tracks Sunnyside Post October 8, 2014. Mr. Conley has also already recommended study of construction of affordable housing on the Phipps Corporation property on Barnett Ave. in a letter to the City Planning Director dated April 30, 2014 Phipps Affordable Housing Letter .
How and why does Mr. Conley enjoy this special status? You won’t find out from CB 2.
Mr. Conley’s ongoing status with CB 2 post his Board membership (and farewell party) was initially noted with his participation in CB 2’s public hearing on April 8, 2015 at the Irish Center in Long Island City. Mr. Conley sat at the Land Use Committee table and participated as though he was still a CB 2 member in the meeting on June 24, 2015 when the Committee first considered the Phipps Houses proposal for a 10-story, 220-unit residential building on Barnett Avenue. At this meeting, Mr. Conley in a loud voice for reasons unexplained made sure that the representatives of Phipps were aware that members of the press were present at the Land Use Committee meeting.
Curious about Mr. Conley’s role at these Committee meetings after he was replaced on the CB 2 Board, I wrote to CB 2 on July 25, 2015 inquiring about his current status with the Board and asking for documents pertaining to same. Not hearing anything and wondering if my email had been received, I called CB 2 on July 29, 2015 and was put on the telephone with Mr. O’Brien.
What followed was a loud, contentious conversation in which I was repeatedly asked what did I want to know, why did I want to know it, and what was my “agenda”. I was told by Mr. O’Brien that he appointed Mr. Conley as public member to the Land Use Committee and Transportation Committees based on his authority as Board Chair. Mr. O’Brien indicated that it may be an onerous task to search the Board files for documents pertaining to these public member appointments, although as I pointed out the time period involved in a search was perhaps a few days (from March 31, 2015 until the April 8, 2015 meeting) or a couple months (until the June 24th Land Use Committee meeting).
Mr. O’Brien told me I had to make a formal FOIL request and in effect related that the request would be handled in due course. I subsequently received on July 29th an email forwarding a second email dated July 27, 2015 from Mr. O’Brien instructing me to make a FOIL request for the information I requested on July 25th (albeit the July 25th email itself constituted a FOIL request).
Still no acknowledgement or response, I called the Board’s office on August 20, 2015 and asked to speak by telephone with the appropriate person about the request. I was told no one would talk with me on the telephone and that I should resend my prior emails, which I did on August 20th. As of August 29th, no acknowledgement or response to any of the FOIL communications concerning Mr. Conley has been received in writing or in a telephone call.
The claim that the CB2 Chair has authority to appoint public members to CB2 Committees is questionable. The Board’s By Laws in Article VIII section 3 vests authority in the Board Chair to appoint Board Members to Board Committees. The appointment of public members is covered in a different section, Article VIII section 4, which states:
“Persons with a residence or significant interest in the community who are not members of the Board may be public committee members, and shall be entitled to vote and shall be counted as a quorum of the committee.”
A fair, reasonable reading of the Board By Laws provides that the Chair is not given the authority to appoint a public but rather that the full Board makes the selection from members of the public who may apply to serve based on a determination of need for a public member on a Board committee.
There is nothing in any of the Board minutes I have been able to review (all meetings in 2014-2015 with the exception of the aforementioned June 4, 2015 meeting) pertaining to Mr. Conley’s appointment as a public member of the two Committees. Rather, the exact opposite impression is made, that Mr. Conley was moving on, and receiving hearty good byes on his way out. Moreover, there is nothing on CB 2’s website in the identification of Board committee members that shows Mr. Conley’s status as a public member of any committee.
Contrasted with CB 2’s failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Law, the requests I made to both CB 1 and CB 3 regarding public committee membership and appointment were answered. CB 1 informed me that it currently has no public members on committees and provided me with documentation from its By Laws expressly stating that the Board Chairperson may make a public appointment. CB 3 also has no public members serving on committees, but if it did the public member does not vote.
Why is there no record of any notice to the full Board of the appointment of a non-Board member to a Board committee, and perhaps the most important committee? Why is there no record of any announcement to the public that the former Board Chair, the person who in December said that it was time for him to move on, and given a farewell party at Dazies, was being appointed to two important Board committees, with full voting privileges, immediately after he was not reappointed in a move to bring new blood to the Board?
When did anyone determine that the Land Use Committee and the Transportation Committee needed a non-Board public member or decide how the public member would be selected? Was the criterion for selection to the Land Use Committee a person who has already publicly and officially taken steps to cause development of large scale housing projects in Sunnyside? Do you think that some of the people who have signed petitions opposing the Phipps Corporation Barnett Ave proposal and/or decking the Sunnyside Yards would want to be considered for appointment as a public member to the Land Use Committee with full voting privileges?
How does Mr. Conley’s current role with CB 2 comport with Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer’s efforts to bring new blood and diversity to the Board?
“Lips and tongues lie. But actions never do. No matter what words are spoken, actions betray the truth of everyone’s heart.” ~ Sherrilyn Kenyon, Born of Fury.
The foregoing does not represent the opinions of the LICPost.
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