|The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) is modifying its ban on residents and other members of the public speaking at Authority board meetings, but not enough to satisfy elected officials and community leaders who have long criticized the policy.
At the June 8 meeting of the BPCA’s board, Authority chairman and chief executive officer Dennis Mehiel began the discussion by saying, “we received a letter from the elected officials — federal, state, and local — who represent this area, suggesting that our policy should be modified with respect to the opportunity for the members of the public to comment.”
This was a reference to an April 4, 2016 letter cosigned by State Senator Daniel Squadron, State Assembly member Deborah Glick, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin, and U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who wrote to, “urge the BPCA Board to include a public comment session during its meetings, and to ensure the public portion of the meeting is conducted in one continuous block before executive session.” The letter also observed that, “allowing public comment is an important part of public engagement.”
“The lack of public comment is in stark contrast to other State Authorities,” the letter from the elected officials noted. “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Roosevelt Island Operating Commission all allow public comment.” In an ironic twist, the letter also observed that the Empire State Development Corporation, where Mr. Mehiel served as vice chair before taking over the BPCA, “allows public comment on each individual agenda item before conducting votes. Public comment is also allowed at a number of other entities, including the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the Trust for Governors Island.”
|State Senator Daniel Squadron: “It’s disappointing that the Battery Park City Authority has chosen a complicated and woefully lacking solution to a simple problem.”
The policy observed by all of these agencies underscores a dramatic disparity with BPCA’s unusually restrictive approach to public engagement. Although Mr. Mehiel presides over meetings of the BPCA board (which the public is free to attend) on a near-monthly basis, anybody other than Authority staff or their invited guests is forbidden to speak at these sessions. When residents have attempted to speak at BPCA board meetings in the past, they have been admonished to remain silent. In at least one case, the BPCA has posted a police officer in the lobby 200 Liberty Street (the building where its headquarters are located), with specific orders to prevent entry by a resident who had previously attempted to speak at its purportedly open meetings.
“I’ve given that some thought, obviously,” Mr. Mehiel continued at the June 8 board meeting. “I’ve come to the point where I have a response that I’d like to suggest. I think that, first of all, the activities we have undertaken, the change we’ve made in our community outreach person and the robust directed effort that is already underway, is an important part of the issues that the elected officials raised.” This was reference a recent series of initiatives by the BPCA, including the start of a series of quarterly public Open Community Meetings, where residents are invited to ask questions of BPCA board members of senior executives.
Mr. Mehiel said that the BPCA’s goal, “is to have good and robust communications with the residents that are affected by the decisions we make here. But that by itself is not sufficient. So what we’d like to do, what I’d prefer is, that we adjust our policy to allow two things.”
|State Assembly member Deborah Glick: “The issue is full public participation and it is more important for the public to have an opportunity to address the Board.”
First, Mr. Mehiel said, “if one of the elected representatives of our residents wants to come and speak to the board during our meeting, I think that should be allowable under our policy and we’ll draft reasonable parameters so that we can manage the flow of the meeting. But to have the public, through its elected representatives, come in here and talk to us and express concerns, this is a reasonable approach.”
“And beyond that,” Mr. Mehiel continued, “and this is just my opinion, if any member of the public, if somebody wants to present written comments to the board, on one of our agenda items, it would be noted and included in the minutes. And that’s as far as I think that it’s reasonable for us to go.”
BPCA board member Donald Capoccia then asked Mr. Mehiel, “so the locally elected officials, to date, they’ve been very actively contacting us with concerns that their constituency has. Have they been doing that?”
In fact, the five elected officials have co-signed letters formally protesting BPCA decisions or policies at least four times in the last 18 months. On January 29, 2015, they wrote demanding that the BPCA preserve the community programs at North Cove Marina created under the previous operator, local resident and small businessman Michael Fortenbaugh, after the BPCA evicted him from the marina (which is legally mapped as parkland) and gave the facility to Brookfield Properties, a company with no experience in operating yacht harbors but an extensive record of making campaign contributions to various runs for elective officer by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the BPCA.
On December 2, 2015, the same group of elected officials wrote urging the BPCA to reverse its controversial decision to eliminate the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers who had safeguarded the community for decades and replace them with private security guards working for a company that had (until a few months before) been owned by an investment banking firm at which a senior advisor to Governor Cuomo previously served as a high-level executive.
|Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: “When the community already thinks you’re not listening, offering to accept public comment when it’s in writing and submitted ahead of time won’t score you many points.”
On January 14 of this year, the same elected officials wrote to Governor Cuomo urging him to appoint local residents to the board of the BPCA. (Currently only one BPCA board seat is held by somebody who actually lives in Battery Park City: Martha Gallo. And there is no legal requirement that any of the Authority’s seven board seats go to people who reside within the community, a controversial lack of representation that Senator Squadron and Assembly member Glick are seeking to address with twin bills in their respective houses of the State legislature that would require the governor, who appoints the BPCA board, to name Lower Manhattan residents to a majority of those seats.)
This message was followed by the April 4 letter, urging the BPCA to revise its policy about public participation at Authority board meetings. How or why Mr. Capoccia, or any member of the Authority’s board might be unaware of these communications was not immediately clear.
BPCA president Shari Hyman replied to Mr. Capoccia’s query, “have they been doing that?” by saying, “they [the elected officials] reach out to us.”
Mr. Capoccia responded, “that would seem to me the vehicle through which we best receive this kind of information,” which apparently meant that he preferred written communication from elected officials, rather than having them appear in person at Authority board meetings.
Another BPCA board member, Lester Petracca, chimed in, “absolutely, I totally agree,” apparently seconding the idea that neither elected officials nor members of the public should be allowed to speak at BPCA board meetings. “I’m not quite sure what we accomplish differently from them submitting comments to us and attaching them to our minutes,” he added.
Mr. Mehiel responded, “the difference is that if the State Senator were here and talking to us, there’s the opportunity for a back-and-forth exchange and discussion. As opposed to a general member of the public coming in: here’s a statement, we’ve got it, we understand it, it’s in the record.”
|City Council member Margaret Chin: “I am disappointed by the BPCA’s recently announced process for gathering comment from Battery Park City residents, who deserve to have their voices heard.”
To clarify, Mr. Mehiel added, “but the member of the general public isn’t really allowed to comment and have conversations. There’s no back and forth.” He continued, “my sense was that if it’s significant enough for the Council member or the Assembly member or the State Senator to be on top of it, then we would welcome them to come in and we’d have the opportunity for an exchange and discussion. That would be the difference.”
Ms. Gallo noted, “we still have our quarterly community meetings,” a reference to the Open Community Meetings that the BPCA began hosting last December, and at which residents are allowed to ask questions.
Mr. Mehiel said, “that’s in place; that’s not going to change. We have our Town Hall meetings and of course any member of the public is welcome to come to comment and that’s fine. But that’s not a formal meeting with a quorum of the board in front of them.”
Mr. Capoccia said, “I think there’s consensus” about the proposed new policy, and the BPCA board then adopted Mr Mehiel’s proposal.
The five elected officials who co-signed the April 4 letter urging a more open policy at BPCA board meetings were quick to react. Senator Squadron said, “it’s disappointing that the Battery Park City Authority has chosen a complicated and woefully lacking solution to a simple problem. The Authority could have allowed direct public comment as many other boards do. Instead it has shown insufficient willingness to allow public comment.”
“This was never about elected officials’ opportunity to be heard,” the Senator continued. “We have many opportunities to be heard. It’s about local residents sharing their local perspective with a board who overwhelmingly resides elsewhere.”
“Every local elected official representing Battery Park City, as well as Community Board 1, made a basic request: that the Battery Park City Authority allow community members to speak at board meetings,” he added. “While I appreciate that the Authority took up this request, this step is inadequate. I urge the Authority to reconsider, take real steps to repair relations with the community, for the Governor to appoint community members to the Board, and for a common-sense restructuring of the Authority to allow more local control.”
|CB1 member Ninfa Segarra: “The alleged solution provided by the BPCA is reflective of their negative attitude toward the community and a lack of perspective. Did they think elected officials will accept being divided from the community they represent? Are community residents second-class citizens.”
State Assembly member Deborah Glick said, “it is all well and good to permit elected officials to speak at meetings, but the issue is full public participation and it is more important for the public to have an opportunity to address the Board.”
U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler said, “Battery Park City community members deserve a real voice in the decisions affecting their neighborhood. The BPCA plan — while an attempt to respond to our request for more public involvement — does not sufficiently address the lack of direct local input to the board. I urge the Authority to make the kind of substantial changes that would create effective channels for public input and true community inclusion.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said, “when the community already thinks you’re not listening, offering to accept public comment when it’s in writing and submitted ahead of time won’t score you many points.”
City Council member Margaret Chin said, “I am disappointed by the BPCA’s recently announced process for gathering comment from Battery Park City residents, who deserve to have their voices heard on many items of importance, such as public safety, upkeep of playgrounds and ballfields, and the Authority’s governance structure.” She also called for, “increased community representation on the Board, and for reform of the BPCA to ensure that residents have just as much of a say as those living in other neighborhoods in our City.”
Community leaders were also critical of the BPCA’s new policy. Anthony Notaro, chair of the Battery Park City Committee at Community Board 1 (CB1) responded to a request for comment with this biting assessment: “Thanks for your inquiry but my policy is that your questions will have to be submitted by your elected officials.”
Ninfa Segarra, co-chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee (who is also a former Deputy Mayor), said, “the alleged solution provided by the BPCA is reflective of their negative attitude toward the community and a lack of perspective. Did they think elected officials will accept being divided from the community they represent? Elected officials don’t need the BPCA’s permission to speak. Are community residents second-class citizens? Or is the BPCA seeking favor from the elected officials, so they will not criticize the BPCA? This makes clear their lack of respect for taxpayers of this community and its elected officials.”
|CB1 member Tammy Meltzer: “The BPCA again took a step to reinforce they do not want direct dialog with the constituency who funds them. The public ability to submit written testimony does not add community members to the conversation at the board meetings.”
Tom Goodkind, a member of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “one might expect a governing authority’s decisions to differ from the preferences of constituents, if those decisions are based on having more information than these constituents. But in this and other recent cases concerning Battery Park City, the constituents, not the governing authority, have alone been carrying the information and passion to render educated decisions. It is past time that the Battery Park City Authority do better at representing.”
Jeff Mihok, who also serves on CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “the BPCA Board should allow direct public input at its meetings in the interests of transparency and greater democracy in our community. This need is all the more essential given the Board’s recent spate of highly unpopular and undemocratic decisions, such as getting rid of PEPs, firing Tessa Huxley, and giving the North Cove Marina management contract to an entity that had previously serviced the chairman of the board’s yacht.”
Tammy Meltzer, another member of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, observed, “the BPCA again took a step to reinforce they do not want direct dialog with the constituency who funds them. The public ability to submit written testimony does not add community members to the conversation at the board meetings. The BPCA has only offered a secondary reporting option and reinforced their own bureaucracy. This is not the open door the community nor the elected officials asked for. Their choice to add more bureaucracy inhibits substantial systemic democratic change, which seems to be their goal.”
All of these views are disputed by the BPCA, which said in a statement that the new policy will, “invite public input at BPCA board meetings. Elected officials are encouraged to bring any issues of community concern before the BPCA Board for a full discussion with the members in an open forum. The general public may also submit written comments on any matter before the BPCA Board for consideration and inclusion in the minutes of each Board meeting. This policy is in addition to the establishment of the Town Hall-style, open community meetings BPCA conducts for Battery Park City residents on a quarterly basis.”
The statement also quoted Mr. Mehiel as saying, “the Battery Park City Authority invites and values community input. Over the past year we have committed to improving our relationship with the community by conducting open community forums and engaging more regularly in community board meetings and events. But that’s not enough. Today’s new policy, effective for all monthly BPCA Board meetings going forward, provides for an unlimited amount of public comment on matters before the Board, while allowing Board Members to transact business in a timely fashion.”
|BPCA spokesman Nick Sbordone: “The new policy enables the public to submit comment on any matter of interest up to 24 hours after the close of a Board meeting for review and inclusion in the minutes of that meeting. No time limit, no word limit. I don’t know that this is functionally different than individuals reading one- or two-minute statements to Board members who simply nod and then invite the next speaker up to do the same.”
BPCA spokesman Nick Sbordone added, “unlike the public comment sessions of some other boards, where individuals — usually with a pre-imposed time limit — read statement after statement to members who sit silently and without discussion, our new policy provides for actual engagement between the public’s elected representatives, on any matter those representatives feel appropriate to discuss, and the BPCA Board in an open forum.
Mr. Sbordone continued, “the new policy also enables the public to submit comment on any matter of interest up to 24 hours after the close of a Board meeting for review and inclusion in the minutes of that meeting. No time limit, no word limit – and all the while creating a record, posted on our website, for the public to draw on for reference and research purposes at any point in the future. I don’t know that this is functionally different than individuals reading one- or two-minute statements to Board members who simply nod and then invite the next speaker up to do the same.”
“What’s also important is that we’re not simply paying attention to the public once a month,” Mr. Sbordone noted. “This new board policy, of course, is in addition to the quarterly Battery Park City Open Community Meetings where the BPCA engages in dialog on issues the public wishes to address. It is in addition to social media on which we regularly engage with residents. And it is in addition to the work BPCA staff does on a daily basis in response to all manner of issues that arise across the community — from parks, to pets, to bike paths and everything between. This is not to mention BPCA attendance at Community Board 1 monthly meetings, CB1 Battery Park City Committee meetings, and other CB1 committees as requested. In short, there’s no need for the public to wait for the next Board meeting to communicate with us: If there’s a problem we want to hear about it as soon as possible, through any of various channels, and set to work on fixing it.”
Mr. Sbordone concluded, “that’s the type of engagement — immediate, responsive, multi-channel — that we want to provide the Battery Park City community we serve. And we look forward to continuing to deliver on that commitment.”