Volume 17, Number 39 | February 17-23, 2005

Board looks to limit speech

By Ronda Kaysen

When Community Board 1’s Bylaws Subcommittee unveiled a Code of Conduct at Tuesday night’s full board meeting, several board members cried foul, citing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and effectively ending discussion on the topic until next month.

The resolution, expanding upon Roberts Rules of Order, a book on parliamentary rules of procedure that the board follows, was intended to “include a Code of Conduct governing the public statements and conduct of members of Community Board 1,” specifically insisting that “members shall refrain from making personal, derogatory, defamatory or slanderous comments about other members or members of the staff of Community Board 1 and shall not attack or question their motives whether at a meeting or elsewhere.”

Many board members balked at what they interpreted as a move to curb their freedom of speech and undermine open debate at meetings and in public.

“I’ve been involved with community boards since 1971, and I have never seen a document like this coming from a board,” said board member John Fratta at the meeting. “This is a veiled attempt to stifle members… You cannot stop free speech and that is what this is about.”

Linda Belfer, a longtime board member and attorney was equally direct. “We operate under a constitution,” she said. “You cannot prevent other members from exercising their freedom of speech.” Belfer suggested that board members concerned about slanderous or libelous statements should seek legal recourse under the law.

Two-thirds of the board voted to table the resolution, effectively ending the debate for the evening.

The Code of Conduct was not drafted with the intention of curbing anyone’s First Amendment rights, according to Timothy Lannan, a subcommittee member. “I read [the Code of Conduct] as defining what civility is,” he said in a telephone interview. “Is it curtailing freedom of speech if I say that someone is perhaps not the brightest bulb in the marquee outside of a meeting? I don’t know.”

The Code of Conduct was drafted, according to Lannan, to establish a code of conduct for board members, something adopted by many for-profit and non-profit businesses. Code of conduct legislation has a place in government entities, such as a community board, as well, he says.

“The business that is before us is the community’s business, it should not be dealing with personality or individual motives, it should really be about dealing with the issues and for me what is really at the core of this issue is to try to frame that,” he said.

Judy Duffy, assistant district manager for C.B. 1 wondered how effective a resolution of this kind would actually be. “Personally, I don’t know if you can legislate civility,” she told Downtown Express. “It’s one thing to deal with what people can do at meetings, but can you really tell people what they can say outside of meetings?”

But even legislating discussions within meetings has some members nervous. “The underlying premise of the resolution was to curb free speech and to find ways to remove board members that disagree with the leadership,” said board member Marc Ameruso who ran an unsuccessful campaign for C.B. 1 chairperson against the current chairperson Madelyn Wils in 2004.

The new rules, he insists, would prevent board members from raising unflattering issues about other members. “My entire platform for running for chair would be a violation of the code of conduct,” he said. “So I wouldn’t even be able to run and state the statements that I made in my presentations because that would be in violation of the code of conduct.”

Belfer, in a telephone interview, also expressed concern that the resolution may be used to remove unpopular board members. “If somebody doesn’t like someone, poof you’re off the board,” she said, referring to the resolution. Belfer declined to comment about any other issues or conflicts within the board, focusing her remarks entirely on the resolution. “I have never seen anybody within the constraints of a meeting be vindictive or nasty. It just doesn’t occur at our board,” she added.

The Executive Committee decided to consider the resolution after several board members voiced complaints about other members, although neither Wils nor anyone else cited specific examples of such behavior. “It is not important to point out whom this is about,” Wils said at the meeting. “This applies to each and every person. It is not about one specific person.”

According Rick Landman, a longtime board member, the subcommittee’s focus is entirely misguided. He agrees that the board needs to evaluate some of its policies, such as open meeting laws, an issue that he insists played a role in the drafting of the Code of Conduct resolution. Landman objected when Friends of Community Board 1, a non-profit organization set up by Wils, held private meetings last year to discuss a zoning proposal for Tribeca. The leader of the Committee on Open Government sent Landman a letter saying that he felt since many C.B. 1 members are in the Friends group, the non-profit should also be required to follow open meeting laws. Landman thinks there were also violations drafting the Code of Conduct resolution.

“There were four drafts [of the Code of Conduct resolution.] Three of them were done in secret at three secret meetings,” Landman said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think it follows a good process by having closed and secret meetings saying it was only for the executive committee and not even allowing me to go or even be on the committee.”

Wils, however, disagrees that more than one Bylaws Subcommittee meeting took place without the public’s knowledge. “We never have a meeting in hiding, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “There were no meetings that happened in hiding, there weren’t three, there weren’t two, there was just one that happened to happen before the memo went out and there’s nothing against the charter to do something like that.”

Occasionally, said Wils, meeting agendas change without time to give adequate notice to members of the public, an unfortunate, although not intentional occurrence. “What happens is that the developer calls and says I have the drawings that you requested,” she said. “What are we supposed to do? Not have a meeting with the developer?”

Perhaps the Bylaws Subcommittee is an appropriate place to discuss the meetings procedures, says Lannan, who helped draft the resolution. “There are sometimes meetings called on short notice, probably with good reason, but perhaps notice provisions could be better,” he said.

Until next month’s meeting, however, the issue is effectively on hold. Several board members have raised concern that a resolution curbing freedom of speech may ultimately be decided in the courts.

The resolution “makes our board look ridiculous,” said Belfer. “The scandal that might arise from passing this is far worse than anything that anybody could say about anybody at the present. It smells. It makes it seems as though somebody or somebodies are trying to hide something.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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