Sunday, November 15, 2015

Do Conflicts of Interest Steer the New York City Planning Commission? The Answer Is “Yes” When It Comes To Selling/Shrinking Public libraries (Unless You Don’t Want to Call Them “Conflicts of Interest”)- Implication For Protecting The Public

Over 2,000 completed testimony forms opposing sale and shrinkage of the library and collected in just over two weeks
On September 22, 2015 the City Planning Commission was taking oral testimony about whether to approve a proposal to sell very cheaply Brooklyn’s second largest central destination library, located in Downtown Brooklyn, the recently expanded and fully upgraded Brooklyn Heights Library.  Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) delivered over 2,000 completed testimony forms collected in just over two weeks at the end of the summer opposing the sale and drastic shrinkage of the library. Confronted with twenty-two reasons not to sell the library, most members of the public submitting the testimony cited the more than half of those reasons not to sell the library, the majority citing all of them. . . . . .   

Notwithstanding, on November 2, 2015, ten City Planning Commissioners voted unanimously to sell and drastically shrink the library, pulling in very little money for the city in return for that sale.
Click to enlarge: Twenty-two reasons that most of the more than 2,000 people delivering testimony against the library sale thought were good reasond NOT to sell the library
What explains why not one of these commissioners sided with the express, nearly universal sentiment on the part of the public?
The New York City Planning Commission at the September 22, 2015 hearing
The lock-step lineup of commissioners also voted 180 degrees contrary to the recommendation Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams made against selling and shrinking the library.  Moreover, the commissioners knew that Citizens Defending Libraries also has, with its two petitions, well over 25,000 signature opposing such sale, shrinkage and underfunding of libraries.  The commissioners rejected and failed to take to heart the common sense, some would say conservatively-based advice of Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, who directed an appeal to them in her New York Post column before their decision about how we are depriving “future generations” : NY libraries shouldn't be selling land - especially to build `affordable housing', By Nicole Gelinas, October 18, 2015.- See also her radio segment on the subject.

About the only conceivable explanation for the commissioners being so out-of-sync is that, pretty much across the board, the City Planning Commissioners have interests very different from the rest of the public’s. . .

. . . Two commissioners currently in office actually didn’t vote (there are twelve commissioners now holding office): The two were recused from the vote because they were acknowledged to be directly involved in the proposed library sale and shrinkage under consideration.

One commissioner recused was, Joseph Douek.  He is one of the trustees of the Brooklyn Public Library, one of the co-applicants proposing to convert the library into a real estate deal and also was on the board of another co-applicant, the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), while the proposed sell-off was formulated.

The other commissioner recused was Michelle de la Uz.  Her position on the commission is as an appointee of the Public Advocate (appointed by de Blasio when he held the position). The Public Advocate's job is to be an elected watchdog for the public interest.  In another capacity Ms. de la Uz heads the Fifth Avenue Committee in which role Ms. de la Uz has already been advocating for the sale and shrinkage of this library and also pursuing a number of other Brooklyn Public Library real estate deals like Sunset Park, Clinton Hill (requires accompanying upzoning), Red Hook and finally turning the Sunset Park Library into a multi-use development.  Supposedly Commissioner de la Uz’s Sunset Park Library   redevelopment will be moved to the head of the list for city funding if the Brooklyn Heights Library is sold.

But what of the other ten commissioners who did vote?  Whatever causes their point of view to diverge so significantly from what the public wants, they say it is not a conflict of interest and they say there was no similar need for any other of them to to similarly recuse themselves.  We know this because Citizens Defending Libraries raised the issue of the likely need of seven more commissioners to recuse themselves, noting how those seven commissioners were respectively, in various ways, involved professionally with businesses, entities, and individuals in selling off the libraries.
CPC Chair Carl Weisbrod
Firmly rejecting the notion that any other commissioner might have to recuse themselves by reason of a conflict of interest the commission’s Chair Carl Weisbrod observed of the various professional entanglements (refereed to by him as their “essential . . . broad exposure to the business realms and civic realms of city life”) we “clearly would not want a commission of cloistered monks.”

Whether the commissioners have been living like “cloistered monks” or not, the question is whether the vote of all ten of the commissioners, each and every one of them under the circumstances and taking their associations into account, could be interpreted as independently exercised votes of conscience rather than reflecting a desire to please those in the real estate industry.

Having conflicts of interest is inherently awkward, but having a conflict of interest doesn’t make you a bad person.  What makes someone a bad person is having a conflict of interest and letting that conflict of interest determine an outcome.  A shade of nuance over from this is having a conflict of interest and, because you believe that you can still exercise your best judgement, voting or exercising discretion in a position of trust despite that conflict.  If you then vote in accordance with how that conflict might sway you (rather than the reverse) even if you think you are exercising your best judgment, you then have an appearance of impropriety, difficult to explain away.

If your standard is that you should avoid the appearance of improprieties (and that’s the standard most would advise) and you have many conflicts that can create such appearances then you may not be a bad person, but the question is whether you are holding a position it is not good for you to hold, whether it would be better for another, less conflicted person, to hold that position instead. . .

. . . With the world of New York real estate (especially the huge projects and major decisions regularly coming before City Planning) being such a small world of big monopolies, mostly a few, often family-based organizations, it is not surprising that commissioners who are `broadly’ involved in that world and not living like “cloistered monks” would face overlaps of involvement worth looking at.

Along these lines, the Citizens Defending Libraries press release announcing that it was raising the conflicts of interest issue noted:
The perhaps startling number of commissioners asked to recuse themselves can be accounted for by a number of things deserving public attention: Because so many of the New York City Planning Commission commissioners are deeply enmeshed in their own private real estate careers, the ubiquity of Forest City Ratner as a developer, and lastly because all of New York City's many libraries have now become an attractive target for transformation into real estate deals.
The reference to Forest City Ratner is because four of the commissioners had identifiable business interactions with Forest City Ratner and the commissioners were voting to approve the amendment of an agreement with Forest City Ratner (incidentally allowing for the wiping out of a public park and open space with many trees) whereby the transfer development rights could transferred through Forest City Ratner’s property.

Aside from the recused commissioners de la Uz and Douek, three other of the commissioners had connections to library sale transactions, one of them being Chair Weisbrod because of the involvement of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in real estate matters relating to the sale of New York City Libraries.
Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron, a particularly interesting case when it comes to conflicts of interest and selling off libraries
When it come to selling libraries Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron was a particularly interesting case because she (and I am stealing language liberally from the press release) has multiple relationships with many of the people involved in promoting the sale of New York City libraries.  That includes working directly with Linda Johnson, president of the BPL, one of the co-applicants to sell and shrink the library.  It also includes being on the board of the Revson Foundation formulating policy with Sharon Greenberger, the former Chief of Staff to Daniel Doctoroff, Deputy Mayor for Development for the Bloomberg administration who as a BPL trustee worked with Janet Offensend to structure this and other library sale transactions.  Her involvement with promoting the sale and shrinkage of libraries in a surprising variety and number of ways is extensively set forth in this open letter to her from Citizens Defending Libraries before the commission's vote: Friday, October 30, 2015, Open Letter To NYC Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron Respecting Her Vote About Selling & Shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library, Other Libraries The Revson Foundation, Center for an Urban Future, And More 

Among other things, the Revson Foundation granted money to the Sunset Park Library real estate transaction tied in with this one, a reason Commissioner de la Uz has already recused.  The Revson Foundation has also given money to a number of other organizations promoting NYC library sales, including the Center for an Urban Future whose representatives testified more than once during these proceedings that the Brooklyn Heights Library (and others) should be sold based on reports the center did funded by the Revson Foundation.  Effron has been simultaneously involved on the "Benefit Committees" for Center for an Urban Future galas (for at least two years) working with David Offensend who, as COO of the NYPL sold the Donnell Library while his wife Janet was involved as BPL trustee structuring the nearly identical proposed Brooklyn Heights Library sale.
On left the David Offensend deal, the luxury tower replacing the  Donnell library. On right, the Janet Offensend deal, a luxury tower to replace the Brooklyn Heights Library replicating the Donnell deal.
The debacle of selling the Donnell Library, still infamous, was alluded to several times by the commissioners during the hearing as a generally acknowledged mistake (although the Revson funded Center For An Urban Future endorses it as model).  We have now passed the 8th anniversary of its sudden, secretive sale: The luxury hotel, condominium tower and restaurants the lucky developers to whom the property was handed got to build were up and running last March, but the tiny, underground, shrunken mostly bookless library to `replace’ the once grand Donnell is still nowhere in sight.

David Offensend was also working to sell the Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library as part of the Central Library Plan.  That’s the same plan predicated on removing 3 million books from the research stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library and sending them to New Jersey, something hurriedly done before Bloomberg left office so that we are still trying get them brought back.

Commissioner Effron was not recused from the vote and voted just the way one would expect her to given all these previous efforts   Explanations for why none of the commissioners, including Commissioner Effron, recused themselves were offered in general terms so pinpointing what exact reasoning applied to each respective commissioner is difficult.  From what was offered it seems that, in the case the of Ms. Effron, the idea seemed to be that she didn’t have a conflict of interest because Sharon Greenberger, working with her the board of the Revson Foundation to set policy and provide funds to organizations promoting library sales, including the Center For an Urban Future, and former hedge funder David Offensend, working with her on the fund-raising galas for the Center For an Urban Future, were considered just “acquaintances.”  Chair Weisbrod suggested that to “just know” someone or have inconsequential dealings with them was not a concern. The Commission Counsel, Anita Laremont, opined for the board that “incidental business relationships” don’t create conflicts while Weisbrod similarly said that just to have “dealings with” someone doesn’t create a conflict.

What was perhaps intended by Chair Weisbrod to be the coup-de-grace in dismissing any idea that Ms. Effron could have a conflict of interest was that her long record of involvement with those pushing for these library transactions together with any of Commissioner Effron’s own committed involvements in promoting such library sales and shrinkage as Donnell, the Brooklyn Heights Library and the NYPL Central Library Plan, were “charitable.”  Mr. Weisbrod, reading from his prepared statement, referred to board member involvement in “charitable efforts to assist libraries.”

The Revson Foundation is a charity.  The Center for Urban Future is non-profit.  Spaceworks, receiving funding from Revson with a principle purpose (albeit with a real estate oriented bent) of shrinking and privatizing NYC public library space as “underutilized” is technically non-profit, Urban Librarians Unite, advocating for library sales is a non-profit and receiving funds from Revson is a non-profit.

Ms. Effron “has served on more than twenty boards”- That’s from Ms. Effron’s bio on the website of the Municipal Art Society introducing her as “as a New York-based real estate developer specializing in the revitalization of warehouses into multi-tenant manufacturing centers” from when she was a speaker at a “summit” in 2011.

Although BPL president Linda Johnson, who when she arrived at the BPL in 2010, the year before, told her board that the real estate plans were her priority, was also a speaker at the summit that should not be held against Ms. Effron because the speakers in 2011 were many and far ranging. Nonetheless, the Municipal Art Society has also been devoting it resources to the promotion of this and other library sales.  Worse, it stands as a prime example of how a charitable organization’s charted course can be commandeered and reversed.  As Noticing New York has covered before, the Municipal Art Society, once a bulwark for the public interest has started backing developments it once helped direct excoriating criticism at, handing out two awards for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards (once the “poster child” for bad development) and an award to the man who was viewed as having bollixed it up, Sharon Greenberger’s former boss and Bloomberg Deputy Mayor for Development, Daniel Doctoroff.

That a once powerful organization that could be depended upon to critique the excesses of the real estate industry has now, instead, been moved into the category of cheerleader (only occasional deference to its ostensible purposes still paid) must be extremely valuable to the real estate industry, “Better than money in the bank” to use an expression.

Sounds like a joke, but true story-  Two hedgefunders sit in a Mid-town Manhattan Starbucks.  “So what’s up?” says the first.  “I don’t know,” says the second sounding somewhat put upon, “They’re wanting us now all to get on the boards of 501(c)(3)s.”  

Why when you look at the LinkedIn profile for a young ambitions professional, a salesman/consultant/PR type always playing the angles, do you see the vaguely expressed objective of “getting on the board of a charity”?  Just any kind of “charity”?

With the percentage of nonprofit board members coming from the finance industry reportedly doubling since 1989, the increasing dominance of Wall Street financiers on charitable boards is raising concerns about how those institutions set their goals.

Charities should not always be presumed to be doing good in this world.  Forest City Ratner created “charities,” non-profits to promote Forest City Ratner's very much for-profit Atlantic Yards project.  With financial assists Ratner also induced existing charities to veer into the course of supporting his project, putting them at odds with the broader community opposition that soon arose.  Then Ratner essentially used one of the non-profits he created to run a candidate (Delia Hunley-Adossa) for City Council against Tish James, the City Council Member who was leading strong opposition to his mega-monopoly project.

Charities should not always be presumed to be doing good in this world, but the presumption that they are doing good can be like putting on a suit of armor for those from the business world who have other motivations.

In a May 30, 2015 New York Times Sunday Review Op-Ed, "Who Will Watch the Charities?," by David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, says "(W)e should end the charade that all philanthropy is somehow charitable," and gives multiple examples of why.

There are, of course, requirements under state law that the purposes of charities be truly charitable.  There are levels of regulation under the federal tax code intended to enforce concepts along those lines which the IRS is supposed to enforce.  State law is most often supposed to be enforced by the State Attorney General, (currently in New York State: Eric Schneiderman) but that is a political position, subject to the same sway of big money as may subvert the purposes of charities.  In all, there is much deference paid to the judgement of the supposedly charitable boards even when the decisions they make are suspect or bad.

Whether conclusive or not, that activities are denoted as “charitable” goes a long way to negate an inference of “financial gain” being sought.  The City Planning Commission concluded that, apparently largely because they were describing them under the rubric of  “charitable,” Commissioner Effron’s deep and repeated involvements with those shrinking libraries were not conflicts because, as such, she would not be considered to be using “her position to obtain a financial gain, contract, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for . .  herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated.”

In fact, in presenting how involved Commission Effron has been with promotion of library real estate deals Citizens Defending Libraries did not trace through any of her involvements to “financial gain” or attempt to say specifically whether she was receiving other “private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for . .  herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated.”
The Effrons described by Muckety as a “power couple,”
Commissioner Effron is described by Muckety as one half of a “power couple,” her husband being Blair W. Effron, co-founder of New York based Centerview Partners, an investment banking firm based in New York City with offices in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

According to its website since its 2006 founding Centerview has:
advised on over $1 trillion of transactions. Our clients include over 20% of the 50 largest companies in the world by market capitalization, and we have been involved in many of the largest and most complex corporate situations and transactions.
The subject of conflicts of interest can be confusing and baffling in the challenge of its analysis, especially when one realizes that conflicts don’t necessarily have to manifest themselves in bilateral quid pro quos.

For instance, conflict can involve three-way exchanges.  When former Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland resigned in scandal one of the things that brought him down was the purchase from the governor of a “pied-à-terre” condominium unit at an apparently inflated price by an antiques dealer.  The antiques dealer, a Mr. Pratt, didn’t have any business dealings with Governor Roland and wasn’t trying to get any benefits for himself, but “Mr. Pratt's frequent business partner and closest friend” was Robert V. Matthews, whose companies “received $8.7 million in rent and $4.8 million in loans and loan guarantees during Mr. Rowland's tenure.”

Another example of how confusing things can be: Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who (together with others such as Zephyr Teachout) writes about the problem of what money in politics buys at the expense of public good, has been making it clear that the corruption of money in politics should not be considered just the kind of particularized quid pro quos that the Roberts Supreme Court is trying to narrow things down to “a contribution” to a government official or candidate “in exchange for his agreeing to do a particular act within his official duties.”  It is instead a more systemic problem involving generalized understandings about how the interests of wealthy players will be served ahead of those of the general public.

This gets into questions of what the law is, or may be interpreted to be, versus what it . . .  Or as the refrain goes: “The crime is what’s actually legal!”  (At least when certain people are writing the rules.)

Thus part of the defense being mounted for former NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver against his criminal prosecution for corruption is that while there may be more or less broad belief on the part of the public that Albany is corrupt, and while what goes on there, even exactly what Silver was doing may make people “uncomfortable” it is not against the law because Silver successfully side-stepped leaving evidence of a technical ”quid pro quo.”

In his opening statements in Silver's criminal trial Silver’s defense attorney Steven Molo said of Silver and his the huge payments he was taking as alleged kickbacks (per the Observer):
. .  the government simply disapproved of the entirely legal fact that Mr. Silver and other state lawmakers can hold outside employment and, instead of trying to change such laws—which he said will present “inherent conflicts of interest”—the government was “leveling false criminal charges against one of the senior legislative officers, senior government officials in this state.”

 “It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York State has chosen, and it is not a crime,” Mr. Molo said. “The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it’s not.”
A New York Post editorial chose to quote Mr. Molo on another aspect of the defense, everybody does it:
"It's impossible, absolutely impossible," argued defense lawyer Steven Molo, "for a member of the Assembly to .?.?. do the job that a person in the Assembly does and not have some sort of conflict of interest.
"That may make you uncomfortable," he added, "but that is the system New York has chosen, and it is not a crime."
That’s not exactly a you can’t be a “cloistered monk” defense, but it has an echo of it.

It’s worth remembering that Sheldon Silver, and similarly charged Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos also, may not be convicted.

The key to what’s actually kosher, or what ought to be, is what Sheldon Silver sought to conceal.  So, last Monday, testimony was taken from a staff member on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee about how budget reports were adjusted to conceal Speaker Silver’s involvement with “discretionary funding that Sheldon Silver had allocated to items of his own choosing.” 

It is worth noting that during the oral testimony hearing about the library sale, Commissioner Effron was conspicuous in her non-disclosure of her relationship with the Center for an Urban Future when eliciting testimony from its representative.

The possibility of conflicts on the part of the other City Planning Directors don’t involve charities.  Dismissing the possibility of their importance, Chairman Weisbrod said that they in some cases involved  “really ancient dealings.”  CPC Council Anita Laremont stated “Past business relationship is irrelevant. . . . Acquaintances, past business dealing, or incidental business relationships do not meet [the definition of conflict of interest].”

Not much of what was raised for the commission to consider about conflict of interest was all that “ancient,” except for one past involvement of Chair Weisbrod himself: Chair Weisbrod was the former head of the NYC Economic Development Corporation when the Ratner agreement about development of the property, then sought to be amended, was put in place for the adjacent Ratner building completed in 1986.  As for the real estate deals involving the Episcopal Diocese of New York and its pension funds purchase of a portion of the NYPL’s SIBL at 34th Street, the deal's inception looks like it goes back to 2007, but in 2012 there was a significant transfer of real estate, followed with a number of other transactions, some quite recent, and it looks quite likely that negotiations still continue respecting future possibilities.

While certain dealings could maybe be characterized as "ancient" the conflicts of interest law sometimes has a long memory with a “lifetime bar” (albeit narrowly construed) applying to city officials and employees ever working on the “same transaction” for someone else in the future.  While this “revolving door” prohibition invokes an elephant's memory standard, there isn’t a reverse counterpart that prohibits someone implementing a transaction for a private party then going into government and continuing to implement it further or consummate it there.

As for Chair Weisbrod’s previous involvement with the Ratner deal at EDC: Although not cited, he might have been able to excuse himself from a “lifetime” bar with respect to it by arguing that he was, at the CPC, once again working for government, not the private sector, so the bar should not apply.

A review of most of the other overlapping professional relationships of the commissioners show they involve more contemporaneous and/or possibly recurring situations.

For instance, Commissioner Orlando Marín has a professional association with the Bluestone Organization.  The Hudson Companies is the developer applicant wanting to buy and shrink the library.  Bluestone is a partner with the The Hudson Companies in another Brooklyn project, Gowanus Green.

Orlando Marín
Mr. Marín did not recuse himself, reportedly because he is not now with the Bluestone organization.  But when Bluestone was called up by someone seeking to check this information about when Marin left Bluestone, it was Commissioner Marin who answered the phone.  The explanation is, reportedly, that he operates as a sub-contractor.  We understand that answering the phone at Bluestone Mr. Marin was not happy and somewhat defensive, complaining about being “stalked.”  But, remember, there is nothing wrong about having a conflict of interest, the question is whether someone lets that conflict determine outcomes.  Conflicts should also not be concealed.

On September 22nd, after the commission hearing where oral testimony was taken, several of us there to defend the library had to wait patiently to talk to Commissioner Marin because David Kramer, whose Hudson Companies was a co-applicant asking for the library sale, was ahead of us conversing with  Commissioner Marin about business opportunities and who they mutually knew and who was doing what.  While it cannot be said exactly that Kramer was offering Marin business we as listeners agreed that it was very easy to interpret it as having that flavor, and the conversation was certainly reminder to Marin that they were in the same club with shared interests and point of view.

Later, after one of the commissioners’ meetings (Monday, October 5, 2015) where there was a follow-up discussion about the library before the commissioners voted, CPC staff shooed me away from talking to Commissioner Cantor (whose question indicated he was uninformed about the relationship between the Donnell and Brooklyn Heights libraries, including the Offensends).  I was told it was improper for the public to be talking to the commissioners while a matter was pending.

There is a back hallway at the City Planning Commission that leads to where the commissioners can be found before and after their meetings.  It is blocked by a sign that reads “Staff Only Beyond This Point.”  After the commission’s November 2nd voted to approve sale of the library to Hudson Companies, a witness excitedly reported seeing David Kramer pass beyond that sign, disappearing down the hallway.  Sounds like he knew his way.

Should Citizens Defending Libraries have raised these questions about conflicts of interest before a vote?  With any group, and this must be supposed about the commissioners too, there is a strong psychological impulse to “circle the wagons” and band together when any of its members are in any way questioned.  And while not all the commissioners were exposed to questions about the possibility of conflicts in this instance, the possibility of other other conflict being raised in the future is huge.  A little research in connection with other matters might expose nearly all of the commissioners to many such challenges going forward.  You might say that, thinking ahead to the future, they needed to defend how principled or not they have a right to be as a matter of principle.

Citizens Defending Libraries could have waited and raised these issues after the vote, but raising them after the vote seems lame, sour-grapes, and last ditch, less like you were honestly concerned about the issue from the get-go.  The actual fact of the matter is that, given the composition of the board and its history, the board could have been expected to vote the interests of the real estate industry club to which they belong no matter what.  Raising these issues explicitly as we did in advance in a context where the public interest was so clearly contrary to what the board decided at least helps light the way for those who will be dealing with the City Planning Commission in the future.

Chair Weisbrod dismissed the need for any other commissioners to recuse themselves somewhat disdainfully, sounding admonishing as he asserted that by raising these issues Citizens Defending Libraries “demonstrate a lack of understanding as to what constitutes a conflict of interest.”  To add authority to this assertion Weisbrod said that the CPC’s Counsel, Anita Laremont had discussed the issue with the city's Conflict of Interests Board.

Is the Conflicts of Interest Board exacting and tough enough to protect the public?  Some things it does will throw a convincing scare into people.  For example: As previously written about in Noticing New York, in 2009 the Conflict of Interest Board sought to fine a librarian $1,000 because, as a proud father, he promoted and gave away free copies of his daughter's new graphic novel version of  of "Macbeth." 

At almost exactly same time, the Conflicts of Interest Board was exempting the members of charitable boards, including those on the library boards, from newly enacted disclosure rules, doing so very much against the expectations of legislators who had passed the law.  It may be said that the tough rules are for small fry, not the big fish.

In 2009, the New York Times wrote about how the Conflicts of Interest Board was likely not so reliable for discerning conflicts pertaining to Mayor Bloomberg:  City Board Set Up to Monitor Ethics May Have Conflicts of Its Own, by David W. Chen, September 6, 2009:
But even as they scrutinize the ethics of others, several board members, all five of whom were appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have ties to city funding and the mayor's fortune that raise questions about their own potential conflicts.

        * * * *
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit government watchdog, said, "There may be reason to question how strongly they are monitoring the activities of senior administration officials, given that they have ruled against a number of lower-level city employees for rather minor mistakes or judgments and then appear not to be as equally fair-minded in their review of higher-level folks."
Conflicts of Interest Board bias is likely to flow from who appointed them.  The five members of the Conflicts of Interest Board are appointed by the Mayor (with the advice and consent of the City Council).  When Mayor Bloomberg first took office, the COIB, its then members appointed by his predecessor, issued restrictions to prevent Bloomberg’s continued interactions with his Bloomberg LLP. terminal sales business.  Ultimately, those restrictions were not enforced when Bloomberg ignored them and kept calling up his business to check on terminal sales (mostly with companies doing business with the city).  The board that was not enforcing the restrictions transitioned to one Bloomberg appointed himself.
Anthony Crowell, on the Conflicts of Ethics Board and the Brooklyn Public Library Board, appointed to both by Bloomberg.  He was Bloomberg's special counsel.
Currently, three of the five sitting COIB members were appointed by Bloomberg.  One of those three is Anthony Crowell, a trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library, and former chair of the BPL's borad of trustees as the library sales were first pursued hot and heavy.  He was appointed by Bloomberg when he was Bloomberg’s special counsel.

Does this make it sound like the club that gets to decide who can do what is altogether too small?  In 2006 the Conflicts of Interest Board was asked whether Anthony Crowell being on the (charitable) BPL board (ultimately pushing for libraries sales) at the same time he was part of the Bloomberg administration constituted a conflict of interest.  He’s still on the BPL board so you can guess what Conflicts of Interest Board decided.

No matter, it is not really clear at this point what was communicated to the Conflicts of Interest Board in the recent discussions the City Planning Commission reportedly had with them nor which of them did what in reaching the conclusions that there were no other conflicts of interest that needed to be dealt with.

Here is what the CPC’s Counsel Anita Laremont stated for the record during the meeting:
in order for there to be a conflict requiring recusal . .  there would need to be a determination that a commissioner was attempting to use his or her position to obtain a financial gain, contract, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for him or herself or for any person or firm with whom he or her is associated. . .  Past business relationship is irrelevant. Nothing in the various alleged relationships evidences an association of the type that would constitute a conflict or allow the conclusion that any commissioner was attempting to use his or her position for personal or financial gain or other advantage for themselves or others.  We remain unaware of any such relationship, beyond those of Commissioner de la Uz and Commissioner Douek who are both recused .
The relevant provision of the City Charter on this is Charter Section 2604 subsection 3, which prohibits public servants from using or attempting to use their city position to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect for themselves or for any person or firm with whom or with which they are associated. . . Acquaintances, past business dealing, or incidental business relationships do not meet this definition.  In short, none of the claimed relationships here would require recusal for any of the named commissioners.
To be absolutely fair, although the overwhelming divergence of the commissioners' votes from what would obviously appear to be public interest cannot be readily explained without resorting to an examination of problematic ties to the real estate industry, not every one of the ten votes can necessarily be ascribed to possible conflicts of interest.
Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin, a particularly depressing vot because of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
The vote that was most depressingly troubling and not explicable in this way was that of Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin, the appointee of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin has no apparent conflicts or ties to the real estate industry. Appointed by Borough President Gale Brewer, she should have been expected to vote exactly as Gale Brewer wanted so long as it was the right thing, and Commissioner Levin comes across as very smart and informed so she must have known that voting for the sale and shrinkage of the library was not the right thing to do.  During the hearing she properly raised valid, on-target concerns about what was proposed: That this was a “one-shot deal,” a lack of a proper appraisal showed that the city was not even getting the “tear-down” value of an extremely valuable asset, how there was absolutely no guarantee that any of proceeds going to the city would ultimately be spent on libraries (the “main argument” for the proposed sale), that the BPL was selling the library without even bothering to design the “replacement” shrunken library first, she expressed concern about the imbalance and burdens between development and supporting public infrastructure when our educational infrastructure, schools and libraries get such short shrift.

She firmly expressed all these appropriate concerns during the early days of the proceedings and then she did that classic government maneuver that’s always startling whenever it is pulled in these situations: The day of the vote she obliquely announced that all her “concerns had been met” leaving it a mystery how that could possibly be.

Needless to say there is probably reason to be enormously disappointed in Gale Brewer as the probable influencer of this outcome.  It does not bode well with respect to the planned sale of SIBL being talked about that results in the shrinkage of the Mid-Manhattan library when “renovated.”  Further, it is already time to acknowledge that Brewer has not been the friend to SIBL one would hope and expect.

As Brewer’s appointee Commissioner Levin should also have voted against the sale based on Commission Chair Weisbrod’s indication that the sale of this public asset could be viewed (dangerously) as setting an interchangeable precedent for something Gale Brewer recently fought while still a City Council member: Selling public schools for redevelopment, putting them in the base of towers.  Indeed, although Citizens Defending Libraries offered caution about this and all its associated problems in its testimony, less than two weeks after the commission’s vote a report ran on WNYC, sounding like it had been placed by the de Blasio administration, a trial balloon for future PF.  It told us “Mayor de Blasio says” that the public should “allow developers to build taller and, in return, get things like new schools and libraries” in the buildings.  See: Dumbo Developer Proposes Schools in New Apartment Buildings, Friday November 13, 2015.
WNYC's report: Dumbo Developer Proposes Schools in New Apartment Buildings
Ironically, reporter Janet Babin’s WYNYC report is structured around “one real estate mogul” Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management in Dumbo who is “on board” making the proposal to do this “wherever there are new apartments coming on line” and uses the example of school space being put into Walentas’ Dock Street, Walentas proclaiming it “a model of how schools should get built.”   The report makes no mention of the sordid details of how the withholding of a more appropriate school was used to blackmail the community into approving a bigger Dock Street project for Walentas that the report holds up as a desirable example.

The report, biased in terms of time allocated and otherwise, lets Walentas make a sort of too-good-to-be-true-free-lunch pitch that by allowing a “bending the zoning code” by Mayor de Blasio we’d be creating “land for free” (Really?), and that “private developers can build schools cheaper than the city” and that the city spends “way too much money” building schools.  In asserting that there will soon be a “shiny new school” in the Walentas building the report skips mention of the controversial bait and switch the community is now dealing with in that respect.

The entire WNYC report offers just one sentence that offers a different point of view to counter what it hypes, but it’s a good one.  Maggie Spillane, a member of the community education council for Brooklyn Heights says: “I think for children, where they learn matters, and I don’t know that developers whose main interest is in selling apartments, really have the interest of the school children, sort of at the forefront.”  Her on-target observation, however, is undercut by the quickly following suggestion that a developer may want a good school to help sell apartments.

Think for a moment: Isn't the reason that we need our libraries and new schools because developers have gone crazy-wild building taller all over the place already?

How can the answer is to that problem then be to build even more and even taller?  (it's like those who say the answer to guns in schools is even more guns in schools.)  What happened to providing schools and libraries the old-fashioned way keeping pace with development, no hostage taking allowed?

Besides, why are we noticing that the result of letting the private developer Hudson Companies build super-tall (400 feet) on the site of the Brooklyn Heights Library is that the `rebuilt' shrunken library the public is getting in exchange, hardly a free lunch, is actually a significant loss, just one-third the size of the library the public, no private developer in sight, recently enlarged and fully upgraded in 1993.

Why is it that Gale Brewer apparently wanted her appointee to the City Planning Commission to set a precedent to approve the sale and shrinkage of NYC city libraries, likely followed by New York City schools in deals that drastically shortchange the public?  Why would she want to be seen as retroactively blessing the inexcusable sale and shrinkage of the Donnell Library?  An answer is that she may have had a deal with de Blasio.  In the larger scheme of things, that's OK, not a conflict of interest, if Borough President Brewer made a good trade, one that actually benefitted the public.  Horse trading and deal making is the basis for much of the way that government and politics operate.

But why would de Blasio want to be selling off and shrinking libraries, something he decried as he ran for mayor saying: 
It's public land and public facilities and public value under threat. . . and once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties
The answer is that, shortly after saying this, de Blasio was taking money from the real estate development team looking to acquire the Brooklyn Heights Library while their application was spending.  Money in politics is not the kind of possibly prohibited conflict of interest we have mostly been talking about here, but in the big picture, money in politics represents interests that conflict with those of the public.

Reade Street, above the door when you enter City Planning Commission premises
The vote of the city Planing commissioners occurred at 22 Reade Street.  That’s sadly ironic because the commissioners voted to greatly curtail and take away space for New Yorkers to read. . .

. . .  Another irony: The Monday the commissioners voted to shrink library space the New York Times ran a front page story about how the troubling shortage of New York City library space often means that needs are not being fulfilled.  The article said that surging “demand for story time  . .   has posed logistical challenges” for NYC libraries “particularly those in small or cramped buildings.”  See: New York Times:  Long Line at the Library? It's Story Time Again, by Winnie Hu, November 1, 2015.
Citizens Defending Libraries tweet of New York Times story about inadequate library space.
You can't make this stuff up!

The City Planning Commission would have you believe that there were no conflicts that should have required any of the other commissioners to recuse themselves, a sort of `Move along folks, nothing to see here' kind of thing.  It's flabbergasting that, even by the very narrow constraints according to which the CPC would like to define and admit to conflicts that their answer is that there absolutely weren't any more conflicts at all to be recognized (or even asked about).  Beyond this, there is the bigger picture question of what is allowed to drive the planning commission and what the public would likely sense ought to be considered a conflict with an appropriate writing and interpretation of law.  That kind of analysis would likely call for more recusals in this instance and probably for a different, stricter approach to selecting who should serve on the commission in the first place.

Thankfully the City Planning Commission speaking for the real estate industry doesn't have the last say.  Whether the Brooklyn Heights Library should be sold and shrunk will now proceed to the New York City Council will confront the issue of setting this formidable precedent. Its first hearing will be 1:00 PM this Wednesday, November 18th in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The City Council is a body of elected officials.  There Stephen Levin, the elected City Councilman in whose district the City Council is in, will have a substantial say about the outcome.  At a previous hearing Mr. Levin said that "95%" of his constituents are opposed to this sale, that he wasn't able to walk "ten feet in district" without hearing about this issue and that it was the "#1 issue" when he was re-elected. . .

. . .  We'll see how this plays out.

No comments: