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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee had several items to discuss at its monthly meeting on Dec. 6, but the elephant in the room was the Battery Park City Authority’s abrupt layoff of 19 people on Nov. 9.
Though many of the 19 had worked for the Authority for a decade or more, they were told that they had less than two hours to clear out. Their termination letters said that they would be paid through the end of that day and that their medical benefits would expire on Nov. 30. No mention was made of severance pay.
In an interview with Downtown Express after the meeting, Gayle Horwitz, president of the B.P.C.A., denied that the layoffs had been mishandled. “The terminations took place in accordance with all laws,” she said.
Anne Fenton, spokesperson for the Authority, was present at the B.P.C. Committee meeting on Dec. 6. Leticia Remauro and Hector Calderon, among the 19 who were fired, were also there, having been invited by the committee to attend.
“Although we may not have a right to comment on who to terminate, we certainly have a right to comment on how they were terminated,” said Linda Belfer, chair of the Battery Park City Committee.
She asked Fenton to give the Authority’s viewpoint on the terminations.
“Well, as I told you on the phone when you called me last week, the Battery Park City Authority policy is that we don’t discuss personnel issues,” Fenton said. “I explained that to you when you told me this was happening.”
Fenton said that the 19 who had been terminated had, in fact, received severance. Belfer turned to Remauro and asked, “Leticia, did you get severance?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Remauro replied.
Remauro also said that none of those fired had received letters of recommendation. “It was an abrupt dismissal,” she said, “with no communication.” She described the Authority’s actions as “unprofessional.”
George Calderaro, a committee member, said, “I question whether it’s a private personnel issue. This isn’t a private organization. It’s a state agency and I think the way this was handled is really a negative reflection of the character and the judgment of the Battery Park City Authority’s current administration. This is not a benevolent dictatorship.”
Calderaro said that he was concerned about how the layoffs would affect the Authority’s ability to supervise construction projects such as Pier A and other major construction projects for which the Authority is responsible. “There are more than $55 million in construction projects that are currently on the boards,” he said. He also stated that Pier A is over budget.
“I can certainly get you a full update on Pier A if those are your concerns,” Fenton replied.
After further discussion, the committee members agreed that the major issues were the way the layoffs had been handled, the Authority’s lack of transparency in communicating its plans, what could be done to assist the 19 people who were fired and on-going concerns about the Authority’s ability to manage with a truncated staff.
“In an effort to respect the privacy of the individuals who were terminated, the B.P.C.A. has chosen not to respond to the inaccurate personnel claims that have been made,” said Horwitz on Friday. “The personnel changes were by no means an easy task; however it is time to move on and focus on the needs of Battery Park City.”
Horwitz continued, “As I have said since my appointment as President of B.P.C.A., the Authority is closing one chapter as real-estate developer and opening a new chapter as an owner manager. Our challenge moving forward is to continue to maintain this beautiful community while creating new revenue and opportunities so we can continue to meet the ongoing mission of ensuring a community of exceptional commercial, residential and park space.”
“I’m just sickened by the manner in which this was done,” said committee member Jeff Mihok of the layoffs. “I just feel like — what disrespect to this community — that one of the major institutions that we work with — in the dark of the night would just do this without any advance warning. I understand that they’re not accountable to us … but I feel that it’s such a shady way of going about this. As a member of this committee, I feel it’s a lack of respect and terrible communication to do this.”
“This leaves us without a wooden board under our feet because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Belfer. “If this could happen now, what’s going to happen three weeks from now?”
On Friday, Fenton and Horwitz pointed to the chapter in the Authority Employee Handbook that describes the “Nature of employment” at the B.P.C.A. It states, “Employment with the Authority is at-will and entered into voluntarily. Accordingly, each employee is free to resign at any time. Similarly, the Authority may terminate the employment relationship at any time. Nothing in this handbook is intended to create an express or implied contract of employment. The provisions of the handbook have been developed at the discretion of management and, except for its policy of employment-at-will, may be amended or cancelled at any time.”
In response to a suggestion that the Authority should make a project report at every C.B. 1 B.P.C. Committee meeting, Fenton said, “If you want to email me, I’ve made it very clear that I’ve been extremely accessible and so has Gayle [Horwitz] so please feel free to email me before the next Board meeting on the updates you want.”
The committee concluded that it would write a letter to the B.P.C.A. board of directors that would reach them before the next board meeting, discussing in Belfer’s words, “severance, health care, the manner of firing, the lack of transparency and the fact that people were fired leaving nobody on staff to handle the ongoing projects.” That B.P.C.A. board of directors meeting was originally scheduled for Dec. 13, but it was cancelled and no new date has been announced. The last B.P.C.A. Board of Directors meeting took place in October. The Battery Park City Committee said that it would wait to see what happened at the B.P.C.A. Board of Directors meeting before framing a resolution to present to Community Board 1’s full board, which might not be necessary if the B.P.C.A. board of directors resolves problems associated with the layoffs.
In the meantime, the B.P.C. Committee wanted to write letters to each of those laid off expressing appreciation for their work on behalf of the Battery Park City community. However, Julie Menin, chair of Community Board 1, subsequently said that C.B. 1 would not be legally permitted to write such letters because it didn’t have access to the personnel files of those who were fired.
Concerns about Pier A
The condition of Pier A was brought up several times during the course of the Battery Park City Committee meeting. George Calderaro commented that it had been a long time since any new information had been forthcoming about Pier A. He mentioned that months ago, the architectural firm of Rogers Marvel and members of the partnership between the Poulakakos family and the Dermot Co., who had been awarded the contract to install restaurants and other facilities in Pier A, had made a presentation to the Battery Park City Committee, and then nothing further was said.
“I learned recently that Rogers Marvel is no longer the architect, that the project is $4 million over budget, that there’s no design or budget for the plaza at Pier A and this obfuscation seems to be a pattern,” said Calderaro.
He went on to say, “I’m also concerned because I went by there last week and saw that the pier is completely exposed. There’s nothing in the windows. Nothing is covered. This is a city, national, state – unique, irreplaceable landmark that seems to me is being egregiously mishandled. I wonder if this is the first in a series of botched projects that we’re going to see?”
“George is right about Pier A,” said committee member Anthony Notaro. “I walked by there last week and I’m pretty much a novice but I looked at this thing and there’s not a window on the place and it’s sitting out on the water and we’ve got winter coming up. That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
According to Matthew Monahan, spokesman for the Battery Park City Authority, “The windows are being removed, they’ll be refurbished and then reinstalled, which, in the interim, will not harm the building.”
Roger Byrom, chair of Community Board’s Landmarks Committee, said that he wasn’t so sure. “I am concerned that they are not appropriately protecting Pier A,” he said, but, he added, “I have spoken three times now to [Gwen Dawson], who is in charge of this project [for the Battery Park City Authority], and she was down there this morning [Dec. 13] and the general contractor assured her that every evening the windows that they are working on are enclosed and that everything is protected overnight and over the weekend.”
George Calderaro said that was not what he had observed. “I went by Pier A over the weekend,” he said. “The windows were not covered up.” He said he had photographs to prove it.
— Additional reporting by John Bayles