The Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) has decided to reverse a longstanding practice and allow public comment at its board meetings. At the Authority’s Wednesday board meeting, BPCA chairman and chief executive officer Dennis Mehiel noted that, “we’ve had requests for the opportunity for the public to comment at our meetings. The meetings are always public, obviously, and broadcast, but we have not previously allowed public comment.”
After the meeting, Mr. Mehiel said in a statement, “today we’re glad to further expand the avenues of participation at Battery Park City Authority board meetings with a full public comment period at every session. And as we proceed, I look forward to striking the appropriate balance between taking public input and transacting other board business as effectively as possible.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron, who led a coordinated push through much of this year for public comment at BPCA board meetings, said in response, “for months I’ve worked with community members and colleagues on a simple request: to allow the community to publicly comment directly on public issues that directly affect the Battery Park City community. Today, the Battery Park City Authority Board unanimously agreed to allow direct public comment, and release board meeting agendas in advance — instituting our request. This is a huge step for community voices in Battery Park City, and I sincerely thank chairman Mehiel.”
For more than a decade, the Authority has forbidden anyone other than staff, invited guests, and members of the board from speaking at meetings of the agency’s directors, which are open to the public for observation, but (until now) not for participation. This practice most recently became controversial six months ago, when a coalition of five elected officials representing Lower Manhattan cosigned a letter urging, “the BPCA Board to include a public comment session during its meetings,” noting that, “allowing public comment is an important part of public engagement.”
In response to the April 4 letter from Senator Squadron, State Assembly member Deborah Glick, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin, and U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the BPCA modified its policy in June to allow for verbal comments from elected officials, along with written comments from the public, with the understanding that these would be incorporated into the minutes of board meetings.
But the elected officials, led by Senator Squadron, were not satisfied with this compromise, and continued to press for verbal comments from the public at BPCA board meetings. Senator Squadron took the unusual step of attending BPCA board meetings in July and September to convey comments supplied by Battery Park City residents, and to point out that several dozen government agencies similar to the BCPA permit comments from the public.
At the September 21 BPCA board meeting, Mr. Mehiel responded to Senator Squadron by saying, “I’ll tell you what: in light of your persistence and perseverance, we will take it up again. If there’s either a change of heart or an alternate solution, I’ll be happy to talk with you and your colleagues about that. Before our next board meeting, we’re going to meet with all the elected officials. So maybe we can talk about this among the entire group informally, and see if it gets on the agenda for the next meeting.”
This appears to have set the stage for Wednesday’s BPCA board meeting, at which Mr. Mehiel noted, “I’ve met with the elected officials who represent our constituents and talked with them, individually and as a group. They were unanimous in their request. And as a result of those discussions, the staff has thought this through and put forward a protocol in the form of a resolution.”
BPCA president and chief operating officer Shari Hyman then reviewed the details of the proposed new policy, explaining that, “anybody wishing to submit public comment would need to [email] BoardComment@BPCA.ny.gov by 5:30 pm the night before the meeting. There would also need to be the topic mentioned as to what the public comment would be on. The chair would decide when, during the agenda, the public commentary would occur. The whole public comment period would last no longer than 30 minutes. There would be a two-minute maximum speaking opportunity per person with a maximum of ten speakers. If [there were] more than ten speakers, it would be a first-come, first-served basis, or we would prioritize the topics that are new for the board to hear about.”
Mr. Mehiel noted that, “in light of our requirement that a person who wants to comment needs to let us know by close of business the previous evening, we are committed to publishing our agenda a minimum of 48 hours in advance. In other words, the public is going to have a full day or a day and a half, so that they know what the agenda is, rather than getting it in 30 seconds and that will be too late. So we want to provide that window for people to think about it, and if they have something that they want to come and share with us, they do need to let us know the prior day, because otherwise, we can’t organize the meeting.”
BPCA board member Hector Batista interjected, “just a clarification — they can speak just about what’s in the agenda, or they can talk about whatever they want to talk about?”
Ms. Hyman explained, “they can talk about whatever they want to talk about, they just have to tell us in the email requesting the opportunity to comment the topic about which they wish to speak.”
Authority board member Donald Capoccia added, “so we have the right people here to respond.”
Mr. Mehiel elaborated on this point, explaining, “so we know what we’re here to talk about,” and then asked Mr. Batista, “you don’t like that?”
Mr. Batista replied, “that opens up all kinds of opinions.”
Mr. Mehiel asked, “should we limit them to the agenda, in your view?”
“I think so,” Mr. Batista answered. “I think we should limit to what the discussion is. I don’t know. It’s a little tricky. I’m not really sure. I’m concerned about something being drafted 15 years ago that has been resolved. To have [people who are] not happy, but the outcome is already dealt with. Someone not sitting in these chairs.”
“We’re going to get beat up,” Mr. Mehiel predicted with a smile.
At this point, Martha Gallo (the only member of the BPCA board who lives in Battery Park City), interjected, “not necessarily. I think we’re going to hear what’s on people’s minds and we should give it a shot.”
Mr. Mehiel added, “we’re going to implement this policy, if it’s voted on and approved. But we retain and reserve the right as a board to change this policy for any reason or no reason. We need to, as a practical matter, see how it actually affects the meetings and people, what’s the decorum, and what’s our ability to manage the process.”
He continued, “my point is that we could start with this, which is a little more open ended. And if we begin to waste a whole lot of time with extraneous stuff that’s not relevant to the business we’re conducting, we can decide to narrow the scope, based on experience. Then, that would kind of make sense. But right now, I’d rather be inclusive, rather than exclusive, in terms of how we approach it.”
Board member Lester Petracca observed that, “one of the things is that we can’t tell what’s on every single resident of Battery Park City’s mind. But I do believe that the staff does a job sufficient so that we know what the real issues are pertaining to the people of Battery Park City. And I think we’re sensitive to them. And I put that out there, because there may be some people who have different matters that they want to discuss that aren’t really of major concern. But I think we do a pretty good job of getting them all.”
Ms. Hyman added, “and we do have these community meetings on a quarterly basis, where we don’t require people to sign up ahead of time. People can stand up and talk to us directly…”
“…about anything they want,” Mr. Mehiel said, finishing the thought.
Seemingly persuaded, Mr. Batista said, “I like the chairman’s suggestion: we leave it open and then we’ll see what happens.”
Ms. Gallo agreed, saying, “I’d like to try it. And then I think we should assess.” She then asked, “what’s the expectation that we listen and don’t respond. Is that what we’re expecting?”
Mr. Mehiel replied, “the likelihood of us responding to individual speakers is extremely remote. But we’ll certainly take account of what we’re hearing, in our process. But I’m not looking for debate with individual members of the public.”
Mr. Bastita raised another concern, asking, “what happens if they call out particular board members? How do we handle that?”
“We don’t have to respond,” Mr. Mehiel replied. “We’re here to learn from what they are trying to communicate to us, which will find its way into our deliberations. If it becomes abusive then we’ll eliminate it.”
Ms. Gallo said, “I’m expecting some constructive commentary that we might learn from. When you do this, you also have to realize that some people are going to use it as a platform, personally. We’ve certainly seen that at community meetings that we’re holding. So we’ll learn.”
Mr. Mehiel then called for a vote by the BPCA’s board to approve or reject the new policy. It passed unanimously, and will become effective at the next meeting of the BPCA’s board, the date for which has not yet been announced.
After the BPCA’s action, elected officials who had participated in the push for public comment at Authority board meetings were quick to voice their approval. “I am so pleased that the Authority has unanimously approved the addition of a public commentary session during Board Meetings, as I, my fellow elected officials and the community have long urged,” said Mr. Nadler, who called the move, “a significant step forward to foster and encourage community engagement and representation in the Battery Park neighborhood.”
Ms. Glick said, “this momentous change will allow community members to have an active role in the community they helped build and allow more residents to have a stake in Battery Park City, through a more public and transparent process.”
State Assembly member Alice Cancel said, “I’m fully supportive of the move toward public comment at Battery Park City Authority board meetings.”
City Council member Margaret S. Chin said, “today, the Battery Park City Authority has taken meaningful action to allow direct public comment, and to publish meeting agendas in advance. For residents of Battery Park City, this should come as a welcome decision that acknowledges their right to be informed and to be heard.”
Community leaders were similarly enthusiastic. Anthony Notaro, chairman of Community Board 1 (CB1), said, “I congratulate Senator Squadron and our other elected officials for their work in achieving this advance. I also laud chairperson Mehiel for his willingness to adjust to needs of all stakeholders. The BPCA has conducted Town Hall Meetings, giving residents the chance to have a dialogue with the BCPA leadership and staff. Today’s decision gives residents an opportunity to make comments directly to the BPCA Board. More communication can only be positive in having all stakeholders the chance to speak and be heard.”
Ninfa Segarra, chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “the Authority is the primary government entity that impacts the day to day lives of residents in Battery Park City. The Authority’s structure is insular, not elected and not representative of the community. Unlike the rest of the City, residents can not directly approach these appointed officials to address their concerns.”
Ms. Segarra continued, “we are very grateful to our elected officials for supporting participatory government, especially Senator Squadron. Without their active advocacy, this reform would not be in place.” She also noted, “it is a welcome sign that chairman Mehiel introduced and supported the reform. We would ask that he consider instituting measures to enhance community participation in planning phase of their capital projects. Such projects dramatically affect the texture of the community.”
Looking to the future, Ms. Segarra noted, “this is one step in the governance reform required at the Authority to ensure resident participation. We support our fellow residents calling for changes in the composition of the board. We urge the State legislature to enact legislation sponsored by Senator Squadron and Assembly member Glick to require a community majority on the Authority’s board.”
Justine Cuccia, a member of the grassroots organization Democracy for Battery Park City, which has gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for more Battery Park City residents to be appointed to the Authority’s board, said, “this is a significant and positive step by Dennis Mehiel and the Authority. Although a lot of work still has to be done in the process of making government responsive to the needs of this community, those next steps will be less difficult now that the Authority is willing to hear the voices of the people it governs.”
(Editor’s Note: Ms. Cuccia is related to the reporter who wrote this story.)