|Two members of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) board think the agency needs to improve its relationship with the community it governs, and the elected officials who represent residents.
At the January 27 meeting of the BPCA board, during a review of financial and legal filings that the Authority is required to submit to State government overseers, Martha Gallo, the only member of the BPCA’s seven-seat board who lives in Battery Park City, raised questions about this relationship. She began the discussion by saying, “there’s a section in here on public programming and community engagement. And while it talks about our ongoing focus to engage with the electeds and the community, and what is represented here is factual, the current environment around the dialog with the electeds and the community at large is in need of some remediation.”
This appears to have been a reference to repeated, unanimous criticism of controversial BPCA decisions by State Senator Daniel Squadron, State Assembly member Deborah Glick, City Council member Margaret Chin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, along with repeated resolutions enacted by Community Board 1 (CB1), decrying the same policy moves. These decisions have included the eviction from North Cove Marina of the local resident and small businessman who operated highly regarded community programs there for more than a decade, and the transfer of control at that facility (which is legally mapped as park land) to the owners of the Brookfield Place office and retail complex, a company with no experience managing boat basins, but a long record of making campaign contributions to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the Authority. Another contentious decision by the BPCA was the summary dismissal (for no reason that was ever publicly explained) of Tessa Huxley, the widely admired longtime chieftain of Battery Park City’s public spaces, along with the decision to absorb the once-separate Parks Conservancy into the BPCA. A third BPCA move that aroused widespread condemnation was the Authority’s recent decision to replace the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers who safeguarded the community for decades with private security guards from a firm once owned by an investment group at which a senior aide to the Governor Cuomo previously served as a top executive.
Each of these changes provoked vocal opposition from the community, a resolution from CB1 calling upon the BPCA to change course, and a letter cosigned by each of the elected officials named above demanding that the Authority reverse itself. In each case, the response from the BPCA was to ignore the demands of residents, to defy the calls by CB1 and elected officials, and to move ahead with its original plan.
At the January 27 BPCA board meeting, Ms. Gallo continued, “I ask the board and [BPCA chairman and chief executive officer Dennis Mehiel] to consider charging [BPCA president Shari Hyman] with pulling together thoughts on remediating the broad community engagement model of the Authority.” She added, “I am proud to serve as a member. I am very enthusiastic about the way we go about running the Authority.” She said that Ms. Hyman and Mr. Mehiel, “and the team have brought very strong management disciplines to the way that we run the Authority. We’re going to be talking about some of the policy enhancements we’ve made, which have been fabulous.”
Ms. Gallo noted, “I think we do follow the letter of the law. I just think we have some work to do on the spirit around which we engage the community. I would ask that Shari and Dennis and the team think about a full remediation of that engagement model and come back to us with some ideas.”
Mr. Mehiel answered, “I think that’s an excellent suggestion. In the last 60 to 90 days, we’ve probably been a little bit more robust and aggressive than we’ve been previously, which is maybe a deficiency in terms of the last few years.” This appears to have been a reference to a December 16 Open Community Meeting hosted by the BPCA, which marked the first time in four years that BPCA executives faced questions from the public. At this meeting, a crowd of more than 150 people booed and jeered as Mr. Mehiel and BPCA executives defended their policies, and every speaker who was allowed to ask questions voiced bitter criticism of the Authority.
“We have a few scars,” Mr. Mehiel said of his experience at the Open Community Meeting. “But certainly, we’re going to be more active and more aggressive. But we’re wide open to suggestions to ambassadors, to ideas about how we can continue to execute our responsibilities to the best of our judgment and in conformance with our fiduciary responsibility to the tax payers of New York City and New York State.”
This was likely a reference to the rationale frequently invoked by the BPCA to defend its management style — namely, that its primary obligation is to collect as much revenue as possible from the operations of the Authority. Because the terms of financial transactions (such as those that gave North Cove Marina to Brookfield and replaced the PEPs with AlliedBarton security guards) are largely treated by the BPCA as confidential until after they have been finalized, such an approach is also linked to another widely shared concern. Community leaders and elected officials have repeatedly criticized not only the outcome of the BPCA’s decision making, but also the process behind it. Each of the controversial policy moves in the last year was orchestrated largely in secret, with little advance notice to the public, and no opportunity for meaningful input.
The accumulated frustration from a year of such moves by the BPCA led Senator Squadron to propose in November that the Authority be dissolved, with control of its operations transferred to the City, with some provisions for local governance. And in January, CB1 enacted a resolution calling upon Governor Cuomo to appoint local residents to a majority of the seats on the BPCA’s board. This was followed by a new law, proposed by Senator Squadron and Assembly member Glick in their respective houses of the State legislature, which would require the governor to appoint Lower Manhattan residents to the BPCA’s board.
At the January 27 board meeting, Mr. Mehiel seemed to acknowledge the disconnect between financial performance and public accountability, saying, “at the same time, [we have to] consistently perform to the portion of the mission statement that talks about the quality of life and the programming, and the nature of this community and the public spaces.”
Mr. Mehiel continued, “and those two things, although they are inherently conflicting from a pure financial perspective, really are not in conflict. Because it’s in our mission statement. And we keep that at the top of our list as we make policy decisions, decisions that affect the fiscal activities here and where the money goes. But if we have to do a better job in communicating, we’re going to do a better job in communicating. My answer, Martha, is yes, we hear you. We accept the fact that we haven’t been as effective maybe as we should have.”
At this point, Hector Batista, the newest member of the BPCA board, joined the discussion, saying, “I commend you, obviously, for the town hall. That was a step in the right direction. I agree with everything that Martha says. I think there are ways that we can fix some of these things. There are people who are never going to agree with us. But I think we can do a better job of talking about the issues that the community is truly concerned about. An example of that, even though the staff did an amazing job with this whole issue of PEP, we could have done a much better job of packaging that to allow the community to understand what’s going on. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.”
Mr. Batista then expanded on Ms. Gallo’s suggestion about Mr. Mehiel and Ms. Hyman overseeing ways to improve community outreach by the BPCA, proposing instead that the BPCA board itself play a more active role:”Let’s not just give it to the chairman and the president. We should also come up with ideas, to help them through this process of communication.”
Ms. Gallo added, “my disappointment is that, with everything we’ve achieved, the fact that this is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods to live in in the world, we have a little bit of a cloud hanging over us relative to some of the constituents around us. We’ve got a little bit of work to do on public relations and our process.”