State Senator Daniel Squadron took the floor at Tuesday’s meeting of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) board to push once again for residents of the community to be allowed to speak at meetings where decisions about their futures are made. This is the second consecutive meeting of the BPCA board at which Senator Squadron has appeared to make the case for public comment. (He also joined the BPCA’s previous board meeting, in July, where he read questions submitted by residents and asked that the issue of public comment be placed on the agenda for the Authority’s next board meeting.)
“I am disappointed that, following my presentation at the last meeting,” he said, “there was no agenda item this meeting to discuss public comment. We’re now a quarter later. I made a specific, substantive request at the last meeting. I am making it again and expressing my disappointment that it failed to make the agenda. I would love a reaction.
(Click here to see Chairman Mehiel’s reaction and response)
BPCA chairman and chief executive officer Dennis Mehiel, answered, “I’ll be happy to respond. My understanding is that 70 percent of State authorities do not allow public comment. So our practices are within the broad majority of public authorities.” Senator Squadron responded by distributing a list of 22 State authorities and agencies that do allow public comment at board meetings.
“This was an item that was presented for consideration,” at the BPCA’s June board meeting, Mr. Mehiel continued. “We debated it, and we made a decision.” The June discussion to which he referred was precipitated by an April 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, in which the five elected officials 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. Allowing public comment is an important part of public engagement.” This led to the BPCA’s June announcement that elected officials were welcome to speak on behalf of residents, while residents themselves would be limited to submitting comments in writing.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Mehiel said to Senator Squadron, “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.”
Mr. Squadron pressed further, saying, “I’ll be happy to talk about it informally, but I also thought I just heard, with pleasure, that it would be on the agenda for the next meeting, which would be great.”
Mr. Mehiel answered, “I think what I said was, in light of your persistence, that we are going to take it up and talk about it again.” He then added, “I guess we have to do that on the agenda, because we can’t talk informally, under the law, about anything if there are four of us.” (This was a reference to the requirements of the New York State Open Meetings Law, which treat any gathering of a quorum of board members who oversee a State agency as a de facto board meeting, which must be open to the public.) “But I would like to have our informal discussion about what some of the alternatives might be, that you and your colleagues and the community might find a reasonable step forward, and still maintain our ability to manage the meeting, which is our primary resistance to the whole idea.” He continued, “it’s not that we don’t want to hear. It’s that we have to be able to manage the flow of business.”
Senator Squadron replied, “I look forward to that conversation, informally. I look forward to the agenda item. I would say that to put elected officials in the position of being the mouthpiece for every community concern — I don’t think is in the board’s interest, or the elected official’s interest, or the interest of the community over time.”
Mr. Mehiel countered, “it seems to meet that there’s no shortage of communication from the community, from Community Board 1, back to the Authority. We get communication all the time. The question becomes what rises to the level of being discussed with members of the community at this board meeting. I don’t think there’s a lot of resistance, either on the part of members of the community, to talk to the Authority, or on the part of the Authority staff, to receive those communications and understand and talk about them.”
“Now sometimes,” Mr. Mehiel reflected, “they get a little out of hand. But generally speaking, it’s a robust dialog.”
Mr. Squadron observed, “I think when you have a situation where you have constituents, which this board really does, the ability for those constituents to directly speak to its governing body has a particular importance.”
“That’s why I’m the head of the staff,” Mr. Mehiel replied. “I’m the chief executive officer. I’m the member of the staff that they communicate with. So that by the time things come to this board, a member of this board who is also on the staff has essentially had the granular oversight and understanding.”
But Mr. Mehiel allowed, “your point is well taken and I understand it. I’m not dismissing it. But our view the last time we debated this was, given the access that the community has, through its elected officials, through the community board, through other, let’s say, ‘active people’ in the community, that we have a pretty robust dialog back and forth.”
Among the venues for local residents to communicate with the BPCA are the quarterly Open Community Meetings that the Authority hosts, at which senior staff and some board members make presentations and field questions from the public. But these meetings (which began last December) are not attended by the BPCA’s full board, and are not the setting in which actual decisions affecting the community are made by the board. Another forum at which residents are able to share concerns has been the two Concept Development Open House meetings the BPCA convened during the summer, to solicit reactions to a plan (still in development) to revamp South End Avenue. (These meetings were not attended by any BPCA board members, although senior executives from the Authority were present.)
The push to allow public comment at BPCA board meetings comes against the backdrop of a broader, ongoing campaign to make the Authority more accountable and responsive to the people who live within the community it governs. This centerpiece of this drive is the demand that people who live in Battery Park City be appointed to the board of the Authority. (Currently, only one seat on the BPCA’s seven-member board is held by a resident, Martha Gallo.) Earlier this year, Senator Squadron and Assembly member Glick introduced twin bills in their respective houses of the State legislature that would have required the governor (who controls the BPCA, by appointing its board) to name local residents to a majority of seats on that panel. The bill passed the Democratic Party-controlled Assembly, but languished in the Senate, where Republicans dominate.
The BPCA is the de facto (but unelected) government for the 13,000-plus people who live on the 92 acres of landfill between West Street and the Hudson River. Within the confines of Battery Park City, the Authority performs many of the functions of government, among them enacting laws (as it did with the new “Rules and Regulations of Battery Park City Parks,” which took effect in mid-2015) enforcing the law (through the Parks Enforcement Patrol officers who safeguarded the community for decades, until the BPCA removed them in January), collecting taxes, regulating real estate development, building infrastructure, cleaning the streets, maintaining parks, and building schools.