The only member of the board of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) who actually lives in the community governed by that agency is stepping down. Martha Gallo, who joined the board in 2012, resigned on April 5.
Ms. Gallo said in a statement, “it is with gratitude that I depart the BPCA Board, after more than six years of service to a community I care deeply about — and always will. I thank Governor Cuomo for his trust and [Authority chairman] Dennis Mehiel for his capable leadership of BPCA during my board tenure.” She also thanked the other members of the BPCA board, “for the diverse experience, expertise, and sound judgment you consistently brought to bear in achieving the Authority’s mission,” and Authority president Shari Hyman and the BPCA staff, “for their commitment to the community.” Ms. Gallo added, “it’s been a privilege to help lead an organization on the forefront of issues of critical local importance, such as the resiliency plan now being developed to protect Battery Park City residents and property from the threat of future storms.”
Mr. Mehiel said, “Martha Gallo is an institution in Battery Park City, and for good reason. In her time on the BPCA board, Martha unfailingly offered the unique and informed perspective of a Battery Park City resident, insights that have undoubtedly helped catalyze the substantial community engagement and dialogue we now enjoy. Leveraging her professional experience as chair of the board’s Audit and Finance Committee, her work functioned to keep BPCA’s financing as solid as a rock. With candor, wit, and always an eye toward her neighbors here in this incredible community, Martha’s efforts have shaped Battery Park City for the better.”
The references to Ms. Gallo offering “unique and informed perspective of a Battery Park City resident” and fostering the “substantial community engagement and dialogue we now enjoy” may point to Ms. Gallo’s most significant contribution at the BPCA, where she consistently pushed — sometimes overtly, and in some cases quietly — for a more robust and transparent dialog between the Authority and the community it governs. Among the results were the quarterly “Open Community Meetings,” which began in December, 2015, and at which Authority board members and senior staff answer questions from residents.
On November 2, 2015, Ms. Gallo took the unusual step of attending a meeting of the Battery Park City Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1), at which she said, “I understand the frustration of the community. The process, when it comes to structured community input, needs improvement.” At the same meeting, Ms. Gallo criticized a proposal that had been recently announced by State Senator Daniel Squadron to shut down the BPCA transfer most of its functions to the City government, with some, limited provisions for local control.
Ms. Gallo was also a persistent advocate for resiliency measures in Battery Park City. At the November, 2015 meeting, she said, “the number-one topic on my mind is a major study that the BPCA board has funded, to look at the infrastructure of the neighborhood and resiliency. The City has left us out of every funding discussion of the Big U,” a planned network of flood walls around Lower Manhattan that would (theoretically) hold back future storm waters. “So somehow,” Ms. Gallo added, “we’re going to get some room from the agreement we have to turn over our excess revenues to help with affordable housing, to do this work.” This was a reference to the agreement under which the BPCA remits its excess revenue to the City, which has promised to use these funds for affordable housing elsewhere in the five boroughs. (Historically, the City has more often ignored the affordable housing pledge and used this money, which has amounted to multiple billions of dollars in recent decades, for whatever purpose it saw fit.)
The preliminary results of this study were finally unveiled in April, 2017, in a presentation that highlighted elements of Battery Park City’s design and topography that may lend themselves to adaptation against storms more readily than much of the rest of Downtown’s waterfront. But by that point, the funding model initially advocated by Ms. Gallo had been abandoned. At the April 4 meeting of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, the BPCA’s vice president of real property, Gwen Dawson, and Authority spokesman Nick Sbordone both said that the agency was planning to issue new debt, in the form of bonds, to pay for the plan, rather than funding it from excess revenue, as Ms. Gallo had originally envisioned.
Ms. Gallo was also strikingly independent as a BPCA board member, sometimes voicing public disagreement with Authority policy, and occasionally casting dissenting votes at BPCA board meetings. One such instance occurred in October, 2013, when the board was reviewing the annual budget for the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. Ms. Gallo voted against the allocation, to protest the fact that employees of the Parks Conservancy had (at that point) been working without a raise for more than five years. (That situation was later remedied, in part as a result of Ms. Gallo’s intervention.)
As the chair of the BPCA board’s Audit and Finance Committee, she also brought a practiced eye to oversight of the Authority, a skill she likely honed when heading up compliance and risk management at JP Morgan Chase. In February, 2016, when four other BPCA board members confessed that they had not bothered to read hundreds of pages of financial disclosures and regulatory filings that the board was legally required to sign off on, Ms. Gallo (who had read the documents in their entirety) was able to summarize their contents and assure other board members that everything was in order.
Ms. Gallo’s departure comes at a critical juncture for the BPCA. Local elected officials and community activists have been pushing for a greater voice for residents in managing the Authority for more than ten years. More recently, State lawmakers have been considering a proposed bill that would require Governor Andrew Cuomo (who controls the BPCA) to appoint Lower Manhattan residents to a majority of seats on the Authority’s board. Sponsored by Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly member Deborah Glick in their respective chambers of the State legislature, the measure seeks to bring a form of democracy to a community that is governed entirely by officials who are appointed, rather than elected.
Although there has never been a legal requirement for any BPCA board seats to be allocated to people who live in Battery Park City, there has long been an informal policy of setting aside a single seat at the table for a resident. Before Ms. Gallo was appointed in 2011, Rector Place resident Robert Mueller served on the BPCA’s board for more than a decade.
Another concern raised by Ms. Gallo’s departure is the legal requirement for a quorum at BPCA board meetings, where any significant action must be approved by a full, four-vote majority of the BPCA’s seven-seat board. This situation is made more complicated by the fact that two of those seats are currently vacant. With Ms. Gallo’s departure, there will be only four active BPCA board members, three of whose terms have expired. (In practice, board members at State authorities continue to serve even after their terms have expired — as Ms. Gallo’s did in 2014 — until they resign, or else are reappointed or replaced by the governor.) This means that a single dissenting vote, or absence by a board member, will prevent the Authority’s board from conducting business.
Senator Squadron said, “for years, Martha has been a dedicated member of the BPCA Board, with the unenviable role as its sole member who resides in Battery Park City. Martha’s resignation means that almost half of the Board’s seats are vacant, and that no local residents serve on the Board.” He added that, “local representation is a simple concept emulated across the city, state, country, and the world. With the resignation of the sole local resident from the BPCA Board, local representation is as critical as ever. I urge the Senate to pass my legislation requiring local representation on the Board. And I continue my call to the Governor to fill vacancies on the Board with local residents.”
U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler said, “Ms. Gallo provided a critical local perspective to the BPCA, and she will be sorely missed. As we move forward, we must ensure that Battery Park City residents continue to have a voice on the Board and in decisions that directly impact them.”
CB1 chair Anthony Notaro said, “Martha Gallo made major contributions to Battery Park and most folks here consider her to be a friend. She will be missed. It will be hard to find a replacement for her since she brought three important qualities: strong business and financial acumen; the perspective of a resident; and finally, vision for a better community for all residents.”
Ninfa Segarra, chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “with Martha’s departure, there are three BPCA members with expired terms and three vacancies on the BPCA board. Only one member has an active term. At a time when BPCA has proposed a number of significant capital projects, which change the character of this community, a fully functioning board is necessary for adequate oversight. Our community has an extensive pool of qualified candidates. We urge the Governor to fill the six openings with BPC residents. And to ensure long-term representation, we urge the Senate and Assembly to pass the Squadron/Glick bill.”
The grassroots organization Democracy for Battery Park City, which has collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition calling for residents to be appointed to the BPCA board, said in a statement, “we are saddened to learn of Martha Gallo’s resignation from the board of the BPCA, for many reasons — not the least of which is that now the Authority board has no member who actually lives in the neighborhood. This is an opportunity for the State Senate to demonstrate it is able to work together and get something done, by passing Senator Squadron’s pending bill, and for Governor Cuomo to fill the three seats on the board with Battery Park City residents.” Residents interested in supporting this campaign can find the group’s petition (and more information) online at Democracy4BPC.org.
Sarah Cassell, one of the founders of Democracy for Battery Park City, said, “this is 2017, not 1717. We want representation on the board. We need meaningful input into the BPCA decisions before they are made, not afterward. And we need it now.”
Ms. Gallo’s professional life is now focused on American International Group insurance company, which she joined in 2015 as chief auditor, and where she was recently promoted to executive vice president and chief information officer. She also appears likely to remain active in community service. A former board member at the Downtown Alliance and onetime president of the Battery Park City Parents and Neighbors Association, Ms. Gallo also volunteers as co-chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission Board (a not-for-profit that works protect the rights of women, children and youth displaced by conflict), and once played the same role at Upwardly Global, an organization that helps highly educated New Americans find employment in their area of professional expertise.