Volume 22, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 21 - 27, 2009

Video provided by New York University

Quinn goes on the hot seat in debate with 2 foes

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

The Third City Council District candidates: Maria Passannante-Derr, second from the left, Yetta Kurland and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn before last week’s debate. Kurland is shaking hands with John W. Sutter, publisher of Community Media, the debate organizer and the publisher of Downtown Express.

By Lincoln Anderson

More than 200 people packed a spirited debate for the Third City Council District at New York University last Thursday hosted by Community Media’s The Villager, Gay City News and Chelsea Now newspapers, sister publications of Downtown Express.

It was the first — and most likely only — public debate in the high-profile Democratic primary election, pitting 10-year incumbent City Council Speaker Christine Quinn against challengers Maria Passannante-Derr and Yetta Kurland.

During the one-and-a-half-hour debate, audience members heard the candidates spar over term limits, the City Council’s so-called “slush fund,” overdevelopment, the Department of Sanitation’s planned Spring St. megagarage and whether Quinn — whose mayoral ambitions are well known — has been sufficiently engaged with her own district.

The Third Council District stretches from Canal St. to around 55th St. on the West Side, and is known by some as “the gay seat” of the City Council.

The crowd filled to capacity the main auditorium at New York University. Quinn’s supporters got there early and may have had a majority of the room, but Kurland’s sat closest to the front, all of them wearing yellow “I heart Yetta” T-shirts;

 Passannante-Derr, a former Community Board 2 chairperson, went on the attack in her opening statement.

“This election is about an arrogant incumbent who has turned the City Council into a rubber stamp for a right-wing Republican mayor,” she charged. “A candidate who has sold out her community — first, with a three-district Sanitation garage, when there’s a two-district community alternative,” and second, with a marine waste-transfer station on Gansevoort Peninsula, “a station that’s 50 yards from a toddler playground, a playground where children will now ingest polluted air from Sanitation trucks that will drive into this park all day long,” Passannante-Derr said.

The early questions were among the evening’s toughest for Quinn, and her responses were frequently met with some hoots of derision and catcalls from the audience, although the audience, over all, remained respectful. The first question asked the candidates’ position on term limits and on their being overturned legislatively last year in the City Council, in an effort led by Quinn, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg.

“It is not an issue of term limits — it is an issue of democracy,” stated Kurland, a civil rights attorney and educator who, like Quinn, is lesbian. “If you tell me that you want two terms, I will listen to you, and I will respect that decision.”

Quinn said she doesn’t support term limits, saying they “empower lobbyists and staff over elected officials.” Quinn said she supported repealing term limits — which had been approved by two voter referenda — because of the recession.

“I think given these extraordinary times, it was appropriate to give voters a choice,” she said. “We face now the worst economic crisis this city and state and country have seen since the Great Depression.”

Wall St. provides 25 percent of the city’s taxes, she noted.

But Passannante-Derr said the power of incumbency makes it impossible for challengers to have a level playing field.

The next question concerned the so-called “slush fund,” under which millions of dollars of city budget funds were stashed under names of phony nonprofit groups. Quinn became the Council’s speaker in January 2006.

“There is a complete disgust with the slush-fund scandal and the fact that we are paying for Christine Quinn’s legal fees and the legal fees of her staff,” Passannante-Derr said, referring to the attorney Quinn hired after the practice came under investigation. 

“The Department of Investigation’s investigation was pushed under the carpet because of Mayor Bloomberg and because of your power in the City Council,” Passannante-Derr accused of Quinn. “Thank God, we have a federal investigation going on, or we would hear nothing of this.”

For her part, Quinn said, “We found out a year and a half ago that there was a very inappropriate practice going on in the City Council,” her statement meeting some groans of disbelief. “We believe it dates back to at least 1995. And when we found out that this practice was going on, we immediately asked the authorities to look into it and to investigate it. It’s a practice that never should have gone on.”

Quinn added that, due to new procedures, every budget item that gets approved is now “vetted and trackable” online.

However, Kurland said, “One of the most troubling things to me is that we haven’t seen the investigation on the slush funds — what happened?” Kurland said she was glad Quinn acknowledged the practice was wrong, then added: “But you must certainly have known about it, if in 2006, you were using those slush-fund monies for your district.

Also sparking fireworks was the topic of the city’s plan for the Sanitation garage on Spring St., a project Quinn approved in the City Council.

Quinn said her office continues to work with community members who oppose the three-district garage to find an “appropriate alternative” site for the trucks from one of the Sanitation districts. Getting Sanitation District 2’s garbage trucks off Gansevoort Peninsula is required under a lawsuit settlement, she noted.

Quinn said, “I think we’ve all seen the [garbage] trucks sitting around Father Demo Square bothering people who are having fun in the park — that’s not what we want.”

Quinn added that Community Board 4 — which covers Chelsea and Clinton and which contains some of the proposed alternative sites — already has many similar municipal-type facilities.

But Passannante-Derr blasted Quinn, charging, “This Sanitation garage will be Christine Quinn’s legacy for selling out the community.” Noting the neighborhood already has many FedEx and UPS trucks, Passannante-Derr said, “One hundred twenty-eight more vehicles right in the middle of a growing community. It will be 120-feet tall…. We already have the second-worst air quality in the Northeast. We already have 16 lanes feeding into the Holland Tunnel. We’re going to have a 5,000-ton, open-ended salt shed with airborne salt flying all over right next to the Holland Tunnel fresh-air tower.”

Passannante-Derr and Kurland support the community-alternative Hudson Rise plan, which would only have two Sanitation districts, plus a park on top.

“I think the problem with Hudson Square typifies the problem we have in this community with the type of development and the way that development is happening,” Kurland said. “This is the perfect example of how our current councilmember can’t stand up for us as a community and stand up for the problems we face. It would wipe out that community,” she said of the megagarage. “We have a solution: Hudson Rise is an incredible, complex solution.

“None of this development happens in this city until our councilmember says, ‘Yes, O.K.,’ and signs off on it,” Kurland added.         

Another flashpoint question asked whether Quinn’s being Council speaker — considered to be the city’s second most- powerful office — has benefited her district or, rather, actually taken her focus off addressing constituents’ needs.

Passannante-Derr didn’t hold back.

“Christine Quinn is an absentee councilmember who is disconnected from the district,” she said. “She shows up for ribbon-cutting ceremonies…. She’s in the outer boroughs for photo ops. Sure, Stephen DiBrienza, term-limited councilmember in Brooklyn, gets $1 million from Christine Quinn’s slush fund — but the Visiting Neighbors got totally wiped out. How is that helping us with Christine Quinn as speaker?”

(The payments to DiBrienza’s nonprofit group — termed a “ghost district office” by some — in fact, started under Quinn’s predecessor, former Speaker Gifford Miller, in 2002. Under Quinn as speaker, DiBrienza’s group got more than $200,000 in 2006.)

A clearly impassioned Quinn listed some of her accomplishments serving her district.

“I am incredibly proud of the work that I do and my staff does every day for the residents of this district,” she said. “Whether it’s standing up with the residents on 22nd St. when they faced a landlord who was going to take over their home for use by his own, beating that back… . I’m incredibly proud of when there’s been crime in our district, the work that I’ve been able to do with our local police officers... . I’m proud of the work I’ve done in our Housing Authority buildings, bringing them cameras that helped reduce crime in those projects, and proud of having gone door to door in those projects, to help identify problems where services weren’t being delivered, and enroll people who live in the Fulton Houses in food stamps — that’s constituent services,” she said, as her supporters burst into thunderous applause.

Passannante-Derr blamed school overcrowding on Quinn.

“We have children that are now going to have to go from the Village down to 26 Broadway for middle school,” she said referring to the city’s preferred option. “And that is a crime. That should have been addressed in the long-term capital plan. … We have school overcrowding because of Christine Quinn.”

On another development issue, St. Vincent’s Hospital’s rebuilding project, all said they favor the hospital staying in Greenwich Village.

Referring to Kurland’s and Passannante-Derr’s calls for creating new schools along with new development, Quinn said the City Charter should be changed so that developers “are held accountable for the services that their buildings create the need for — not just schools, but things like fire[fighters] and police officers and transportation.” 

Quinn, responding to a question about Village prostituion, said she was happy to see the recent reinforcements for the Sixth Precinct, including a mounted unit and an infusion of new Police Academy graduates.

She said she’s “working with community members on conversations that we can have with judges” about prostitution, “particularly focused on not giving johns a pass — not letting them off the hook.” Quinn said she hopes to replicate Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s “School for Johns” program in Manhattan, “to be a deterrent, and stop people from coming to the Village.”

She said a program at The Door on Broome St. put in place to help the gay and lesbian youth frequenting the Village is working, and that she’ll push to keep funding it.

Taking a harder line, Passannante-Derr said, “Youth come into the area, some are well behaved, some are not. And the ones that are not, they terrorize the community. They walk all over the cars, they defecate, they urinate, they have sex in the streets…. People have a right to walk on the street — but with every right comes a responsibility: The responsibility to act with respect for the people in the neighborhood.”

Passannante-Derr proposed that the Christopher St. Pier be closed an hour earlier — at midnight. 

Kurland said, “We can’t ignore that this is, in large part, the L.G.B.T. youth. We need to get those children into education programs, into youth-program services. There are things we can do without villainizing people that set them up for success, give them opportunity, that get them off the streets.”

Next, there was a “lightning round” of questions with “yes” or “no” answers.

Both Kurland and Passannante-Derr said they would support the Democratic nominee for mayor, but Quinn said, “I’m not going to make that commitment today.”

Asked if they would accept a parking placard if elected, Quinn and Passannante-Derr both said yes, but Kurland said, “I don’t know — I don’t own a car,” prompting cheers from her supporters.

They all said they would decriminalize the use of marijuana.

Should a police permit be required for a gathering of 50 people? was another lightning-round question, to which Kurland and Passannante-Derr answered no, but Quinn answered yes.

At the lightning round’s conclusion, the energized partisan supporters erupted into cheers, each side trying to chant the name of their candidate louder than the others, while clapping rhythmically.

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