Wils should have stayed despite some flaws at C.B. 1
By David Stanke
The recent removal of Madelyn Wils from Community Board 1 by Virginia Fields exposes a level of political infighting that discredits our democratic process and the role of community boards in representing residential populations. From the perspective of an outsider, this action contributes to cynicism toward our political system. The ultimate issue is how C.B. 1 represents community interests in the political processes that drive our city. Will the removal of Ms. Wils strengthen C.B. 1 or hurt it?
Borough President Fields stated reasons for removing Ms. Wils fall far short of sufficient justification. The sacrifice of a strong C.B. 1 leader merely to provide experience for others weakens the voice of the Downtown community. And while Wils other positions, including on the boards of the Hudson River Park Trust, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and Downtown Alliance constitute an excess of volunteerism, they do not implicitly establish a harmful conflict of interest. Participation on multiple boards can improve knowledge and influence on important decisions.
The ultimate objective of Ms. Fields should be to create a community board that effectively represents the voice of the people on major government decisions. Has Fields demonstrated this dedication to Downtown? My political experience and interest were born out of the disaster of 9/11, seeing our community first destroyed and then overrun by outsiders taking control of neighborhoods in distress. In these challenging times, I quickly became aware of the activities of Sheldon Silver, Jerry Nadler, Alan Gerson, Deborah Glick and Martin Connor.
The first time I saw Virginia Fields, at a televised public forum months after 9/11, I was not aware that she represented us. Her public statements did not address what I considered to be our most important issues. Only lately have I seen a public statement from her supporting the need to accelerate World Trade Center rebuilding, far too late in her term to be credible. Where has she been on environmental issues, including Deutsche Bank or West St.? The fact is that she has not had a visible presence on Downtown issues.
On the other hand, Wils many positions leave community influence highly centralized in one individual. She speaks for the community in a lot of forums. Community opinion on issues frequently varies by neighborhood. Wils, as a resident of Tribeca, may be more attuned to and sympathetic with the Tribeca perspective of issues, to the detriment of other neighborhoods.
Another hazard of being a political insider is that it requires diplomacy. At times, diplomacy can be the enemy of advocacy. There is no doubt that 9/11 created difficult issues that decision makers would prefer to avoid. The legitimacy of C.B. 1 allows it to take hard positions with government organizations on important issues. If acceptance into inner circles depends on not making waves, the strength of advocacy may be compromised.
How well has C.B. 1 performed in the aftermath of 9/11? The community board has accomplished a lot, but has also left a lot on the table. On the primary issues Ive been involved with, the board has had to be pushed into action rather than leading the charge. After 9/11, a number of community groups formed to advocate for the public interest including the Save West Street Coalition and two I am actively involved with, BPC United and WTC Residents Coalition. One factor behind these organizations is that C.B. 1 did not respond to issues quickly or strongly enough.
On the W.T.C. redevelopment, there has been little evidence that broad community interests have been reflected in the W.T.C. design. C.B. 1 opposed the West St. tunnel widely opposed by the Battery Park City residents who would have to live with it primarily on financial considerations rather than the broad range of neighborhood concerns. A broad, articulate campaign against the tunnel by Save West Street failed to derail the project until Goldman Sachs threatened to leave town because of it.
Two large damaged and contaminated buildings still sit just off the site, seemingly untouched for two years. Standards for cleaning up these and smaller buildings are only now being addressed, based on work by another local group, Environmental Action. C.B. 1 has addressed these issues in official statements, but behind the scenes in the discussions that apparently matter the most, how strongly have they been pushed?
As a resident south of the W.T.C., I feel that negative aspects of development plans have been pushed south, while the money for community projects has mostly gone to the north. All of the ugly parts of the W.T.C., such as underground parking and vehicular access, are to the south. The condition of streets there is dismal and pedestrian access across West St. is barely functional. On the other hand, L.M.D.C. money has been spent on the Tribeca Film Festival, and improvements to Hudson River Park as far north as Houston St.
More recently, on the issue of a zoned middle school for Downtown, the education committee of C.B. 1 dragged its heels on making a strong statement that every Downtown middle school child should have a guaranteed seat at a local zoned school. They negotiated a K-8 school for the East Side that relieved P.S. 234 overcrowding, but left West Side intermediate school kids out of the equation. How did the East Side K-8 get negotiated without considering the middle school issue?
But given these issues, C.B. 1s problems stem not from its leadership and Madelyn Wils, but from its structure and self-governing mechanisms. Community boards are not democratic institutions. The Manhattan borough president appoints the members of C.B. 1. They are not elected. This process can result in good people, but it can also result in political favoritism and support for narrow agendas.
Furthermore, under city law, the election of the community board chairperson fails to meet democratic standards. The chairperson is elected with a publicly recorded vote of the full board. A C.B. 1 member voting against a standing chairperson knows that the future chairperson will be aware of her/his vote. The chairperson appoints all of the committee heads, who in turn set committee agendas, and strongly influence resolutions coming out of committee. Voting against the winner is not a good career move. This structure inevitably leads to dynasties. Dynasties can accomplish incredible things, but they can also stray from democratic standards.
As for the departure of Madelyn Wils, it will only hurt the community board. It removes a dedicated and influential person from a position of leadership, without making any changes that will increase the effectiveness and balance of the organization. The biggest problem with C.B. 1 is that it has not had enough power and influence Downtown in the last three years. That problem will most likely grow with Wils departure. And agree or disagree with her on specific issues, she has demonstrated dedication to Downtown far beyond even aggressive expectations. In removing Madelyn, Fields has reinforced the perception that she has no clue of what is going on south of Canal St.
David Stanke is co-president of BPC United and a member of the WTC Residents Coalition, two Downtown community groups that formed after 9/11.