Fields finds a conflict
of interest in Pier 40 vote
By Lincoln Anderson
Borough President C. Virginia Fields office has just ruled that one of the members of Community Board 2s waterfront committee had a conflict of interest in voting on matters pertaining to the redevelopment of Pier 40 as part of the Hudson River Park.
Fields attorney also ruled the other members of the committee did not have a conflict when they recommended C & K Properties/Durst be chosen to build a large ballfield, retain parking, and bring in a big-box store to the pier. After the vote, Aubrey Lees, C.B. 2 chairperson, removed all of the committee members from the committee, alleging several of them had a conflict.
Tobi Bergman, who heads Pier Park & Playground Association, which runs recreation programs on the pier and is funded in part by C& K; is believed to be the member with a conflict allegation, although Fields office would not confirm that.
Bergman said the letter from Denise Outram, Fields attorney, could be referring to him and said he planned to call her to discuss the matter. Bergman in March personally contacted the Conflicts of Interest Board to find out if he did have a conflict. They sent him the rules of what does and doesnt constitute a conflict, but didnt tell him what his situation was, Bergman said. Bergman said he would simply like to know if he can or cant vote on Pier 40 issues before the full board.
What I wanted them to tell me is when I have an economic interest. Theyre not telling me that, he said. Bergman in a letter to Board 2 members last month stated that he feels he should only recuse himself from voting if and when a developer is actually picked by the Trust to redevelop the pier.
In a letter to Lees, Outram, laid out the basics of what constitutes conflict of interest, gave an opinion on whether any of the eight members Lees purged from the committee last month had a conflict and, for the record, stated the chairpersons prerogative to appoint and remove committee members.
Outram wrote: Although some members of the committee clearly did have interests and associations with outside groups that could be affected by the actions of the committee, these associations, for the most part, were not those that would have resulted in direct financial gain. There did appear to be at least one situation, however, where a committee member had a business/financial relationship with one of the developers being considered, and therefore should not have participated in the committee vote.
The board chairperson stated her belief that the outside actions by several committee members created the appearance of a conflict, the letter continued, and she was therefore uncomfortable with them, prompting her to take the action she did
. [A] chairperson, who has the authority to appoint members of a committee, also has the power to remove members.
The one situation Outram apparently was referring to was Bergman, a former committee member who is president of P3, a youth sports organization that is a potential operator of future nonprofit sports fields on the piers rooftop. Stemming from a lawsuit settlement that resulted in an interim field on the piers roof, P3 for several years has had free space on the pier and received a monthly $5,000 payment from C&K, which subleases the pier from the Trust.
The citys Conflict of Interests Board declined to rule on the matter, since it represents past conduct, meaning since the members were removed the matter is moot. C.O.I.B. only issues opinions on future conduct and does enforcement, such as imposing fines.
According to the letter from Outram, a community board member cant vote on any matter that may result in personal or economic gain to the member or any person or firm with whom the member is associated.
Several of the eight members removed from the committee by Lees are members of Friends of Hudson River Park, an advocacy group; one development group vying to redevelop Pier 40 in the park, the C&K/Durst group, includes two board members of the Friends Douglas Durst, its chairperson, and Ben Korman of C&K, its treasurer. Lees contended this was a conflict, and Madelyn Wils, a board member of the Hudson River Park Trust and chairperson of Community Board 1, also said the connections made her feel uncomfortable.
Members of the Friends on the waterfront committee included Arthur Schwartz, the committees former chairperson, Elizabeth Gilmore and public member Robin Shanus. Lees said she removed most of the other members because she wanted a clean slate on the committee.
Last week, after being told of the letters contents, Lees said, I havent seen the letter, but it doesnt seem to contradict anything that I observed. I never inferred that there might be [financial] gain, except for Bergman. I felt there was appearance of conflict of interest, and when that happens you just dont vote. I mean theyre all pretty much connected to the developers, Lees said of the removed board members who are on the Friends group and of developers C&K/Durst. The main thing is that as a result of the action I took, the process has been opened up. Now you have people on the waterfront committee who dont have an agenda and can be impartial. I think the community deserves that.
C.O.I.B. is discrete about issuing opinions, since they can be damaging if made public. But in general, Mark Davies, the boards executive director, said they go easier on questions and complaints about the citys 3,000 community board members, who are volunteers, as opposed to the citys 300,000 employees. The fact that they have interests in their community is part of this, he said.
Community boards are treated much more leniently than other public servants, Davies said. Theyre on there because of their interests in the community. You dont appoint someone to a community board who doesnt have an interest in the community.
For example, when Bob Rinaolo was appointed by Lees as chairperson of the boards business committee, which reviews liquor license applications and renewals, some said Rinaolo, who owns two bar/restaurants in the Village and is a past chairperson of the Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, had a conflict of interest. But the C.O.I.B. has actually not publicly ruled yet on this specific issue of a bar or restaurant owner chairing a business committee. In the meantime, Rinaolo said he recuses himself from votes affecting his businesses or those in about a one-block radius of his locations.
Meanwhile, Bergman has taken to new lengths the idea of a community board member interested in a community issue. He has flown to Paris and Los Angeles to work with different potential Pier 40 developers architects on how to best configure rooftop ball fields on the piers donut-shaped roof.
A former president of the Greenwich Village Little League, Bergman made essentially the same point as Davies when the C.O.I.B. executive director said that community board members are by nature involved in their communities: Referring to the whole issue of increasing park space and recreational opportunities for children in the district, of which Pier 40 is a major component, Bergman said: If I wasnt involved in this, I wouldnt be on the community board.