A decade-long campaign by elected officials, community leaders, and grassroots activists to bring democratic governance to Battery Park City took a giant step forward on Monday, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a new law that will require two seats on the board of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) to be set aside for people who live in the community.
The proposed law passed both houses of the State legislature by large majorities in June, but was not conveyed to the Governor for his signature or veto until December 6. Under State law, he had tens days (excluding Sundays) to accept or reject the measure, after which it would have become law automatically. Allowing for the two Sundays that followed December 6, this deadline was set to expire on Monday (December 18). During that period, the Governor took no action. Multiple sources directly familiar with the situation say that the interregnum was marked by a serious a back-channel discussions in which multiple alternatives were considered to the measure’s requirement for two Battery Park City residents to be appointed to the Authority’s board. These scenarios included the possibility of reducing that mandate to just one resident. Another version considered inserting a new requirement that any resident named to the BPCA board have experience in real estate or finance.
When the Governor’s office consulted with the Battery Park City Authority, that agency’s staff shared reservations about the idea of residents serving on its board. These were focused principally on the possible conflict of interest in situations where the board voted on matters that might affect property values or rents in apartments occupied by BPCA board members residing within the community. At the same time, these sources note, elected officials and community leaders pressed the Governor’s office, both publicly and in private, to sign the measure.
Finally, on the last day before the measure would have become law without his signature or veto, Mr. Cuomo approved the bill. His signature was accompanied by an “Approval Message,” a mechanism by which the Governor can attach legal strings to a bill’s enactment. In this case, the message reads, “this bill would ensure that Battery Park City residents have the opportunity to review and vote on proposals and governance matters that impact their community. As drafted, however, there are technical concerns that would make it difficult to make sure the Battery Park City [Authority] board can function effectively. The Executive has secured an agreement with the Legislature to pass legislation in the upcoming session to address these concerns. On that basis, I am signing this bill.” The Approval Message concludes with the words “this bill is approved,” followed by the Governor’s signature.
The statutory language that will be crafted to mitigate these concerns in the legislative session now under way in Albany remains an open question, and may yet prove extremely controversial. In the meantime, however, Downtown community leaders and elected officials are voicing relief and satisfaction that the bill was not vetoed by the Governor.
State Assembly member Deborah Glick, who was the bill’s prime sponsor in her house of the State legislature, said, “for the first time in this neighborhood’s history, residents of Battery Park City can be assured that their community’s needs will be represented by the Battery Park City Authority board.” She continued, “by requiring the appointment of two community members on the seven-person board, this legislation recognizes and ensures that the importance of local representation is honored. We have raised this important issue of representation for years. I am extremely gratified that the Governor has joined the Assembly and Senate to guarantee this need is being respected. I thank Governor Cuomo for signing this common-sense and important bill into law. I am grateful to all the engaged and dedicated residents for their support and advocacy.”
Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who was a co-sponsor of the measure, said, “today we celebrate progress for Battery Park City residents, who have have fought for years to secure community voices at BPCA, and we are now a step closer toward bringing greater local representation to the board. While this bill was a compromise after we pushed, along with the community, for a resident majority, I pledge to continue pushing for a greater community say in the Authority’s decision-making.”
State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who succeeded Daniel Squadron (the bill’s original author) after the latter resigned earlier this year to help lead a new non-profit, said, “New Yorkers deserve a voice in how their communities are governed, so I’m glad that Governor Cuomo chose today to give Battery Park City residents two seats at the table. Over the past four decades, Battery Park City has grown from a development project into a flourishing neighborhood, and it only makes sense that the board would evolve alongside it. This is a win for Battery Park City, a win for community representation, and a win for New York.”
Mr. Squadron said, “congratulations to the Battery Park City community — this is an important step forward in this long push for a voice. I am pleased to have partnered with the community in this fight for many years and am so happy that progress has been made.”
Community Board 1 (CB1) chair Anthony Notaro said, “CB1 and all 12,000 residents of Battery Park City applaud the Governor and all our elected representatives in the Assembly and State Senate for their commitment to democracy and the future of this vibrant neighborhood. Everyone has worked hard to extend the democratic process to a neighborhood that needs a direct voice in our future.”
He further observed that, “CB1 and Battery Park City residents have taken up the task of ensuring that democracy lives in our community. Residents and businesses have long endured the fact that well-meaning and very competent volunteers have populated the BPCA board. But the level of governance that Board exerts over our lives and homes cannot stand without direct representation.”
“This new legislation ensures that our voices and votes can influence our futures,” he added. “This is both a right and responsibility — and one that CB1 has long advocated for. If you measure the advocacy spent by CB1, the Battery Park City Committee, organizations like Democracy for Battery Park City, and residents at all levels, then it’s not surprising that this victory has been achieved.”
Tammy Meltzer, who chairs CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “after many years of work by the community, we are very appreciative for Governor Cuomo signing the legislation and recognizing the importance of community representation for future decisions by the BPCA. This is a major step forward for the residents of Battery Park City.”
Ninfa Segarra, Ms. Meltzer’s predecessor as chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, who presided for several years over the political struggle to bring residents to the BPCA board, said, “this accomplishment is an important step toward participation in decision-making that can reflect and affect the future of Battery Park City. Deborah Glick heard our call to action and met the challenge. Governor Cuomo, by signing the legislation, recognized the importance of community participation. This occurred due to collective efforts many years in the making. It is a civics lesson that a united community with a clear objective can achieve positive change.”
City Council member Margaret Chin said, “this is a piece of legislation that has been a long time coming, so I am incredibly pleased to see it finally become law. With this bill taking effect immediately, it is my expectation that the people of Battery Park City will have true community representation on the Battery Park City Authority’s board of directors without delay.”
Justine Cuccia, one of the founders of Democracy for Battery Park City, a grassroots organization that has collected more than 2,500 petition signatures and has lobbied for years for neighborhood residents to be appointed to the Authority’s board, said, “everyone who cares about having a voice in how this community is governed is happy about this. Governor Cuomo’s decision to sign the bill is a win for everybody concerned. It will enable residents to partner with the Battery Park City Authority in a meaningful way for the first time, and will also give the Authority a legitimacy that it has never had before. This establishes a connection between the people who live here and the people who govern the neighborhood that has no precedent.”
One community leader who was instrumental in the bill’s passage in the State Senate earlier this year (where it had been blocked in prior years) was Pamit Surana, who hired a lobbyist at his own expense to help shepherd the measure through the legislature. “This is a small, first step,” said Mr. Surana, “it is only the beginning. To put this in perspective, it’s surprising we had to fight to actually legislate for our own representation in the first place. Our original vision for this bill was that the Authority’s board should be comprised exclusively of residents. To get the bill through the Senate, we scaled that back to a majority of residents, and we then were forced down to just two, because that stood a better change of getting by the Governor. So this is a compromise on a compromise. It’s still more than residents have ever been guaranteed before, but it’s just a start. Now, the real work begins. We have to get those two seats filled by people who live here, who will also speak for residents and foster a more open and transparent environment. We also have to go back to the legislature and get that promise of two seats expanded to three, and then four, and then more. In the longer term, we should explore a more democratic process — perhaps a law that allows people who live here to elect or nominate the residents who represent them on the Authority’s board, rather than having them be appointed. We have many talented people in our neighborhood, and not all of them may be politically connected in Albany.”
Nick Sbordone, the BPCA’s director of communications and public affairs, said, “we look forward to continuing our successful work with the BPCA board, local residents, and the wide range of community partners that makes Battery Park City the treasure it is.”
(Editor’s Note: Ms. Cuccia is related to the reporter who wrote this story.)