Ariel Palitz, left, told Diem Boyd she’s concerned about “a strange man” obsessively videotaping her at S.L.A. Committee meetings. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | (Updated Oct. 23, 2013) Controversy continues to flare around the East Village’s Community Board 3 and its troubled relationship with LES Dwellers, an aggressive and highly organized, new quality-of-life group.
A month ago, David McWater, the board’s former chairperson, resigned from C.B. 3 a week after blowing up at Sara Romanoski, a diminutive Dwellers member. The heated incident was caught on several videotapes and went viral. Around the same time, The Villager had also received a tip that McWater — who owns several East Village bars — may actually live in leafy Lambertville, N.J., which would disqualify him from being on a New York City community board. McWater subsequently resigned at the C.B. 3 Sept. 24 full-board meeting, saying he was not planning to reapply for appointment in April anyway.
Now, in the latest flap, earlier this month, Gigi Li, C.B. 3 chairperson, and Susan Stetzer, the board’s district manager, phoned Diem Boyd, the Dwellers’ founder and president, to inform her that the board had temporarily “suspended” the group for three months.
Although the action was discussed at the board’s Executive Committee — comprised of the board’s committee chairpersons — the Executive Committee did not take a vote on the idea, and neither did the full board.
The unusual move sent a shockwave through the Downtown activist community, from East to West.
This Monday, Borough President Scott Stringer — who appoints the community board members — weighed in on the hot-button issue. After reviewing the matter, Stringer concluded that the Dwellers’ suspension “does not serve the interests of community board transparency and democratic representation.” He further stated that C.B. 3 should “reconsider” its policy of excluding organizations.
Charging the Dwellers have overstepped their bounds in independently reaching out to liquor license applicants before they even get to C.B. 3, Chairperson Li, along with District Manager Stetzer, informed the Dwellers two weeks ago that the board was temporarily suspending them — essentially, refusing to recognize them as a community group — for the next three months. The board would no longer recognize the Dwellers group at meetings, they said, though its members could testify as individuals. In addition, the board would not put the Dwellers on the “referral list” of block associations that it provides to new liquor license applicants.
Declaring the ban was a violation of their constitutional rights, the Dwellers subsequently asked Stringer’s Office to review the ban.
Borough President Scott Stringer’s letter to C.B. 3′s Gigi Li and Susan Stetzer.
On Oct. 21, Stringer responded in a letter to Stetzer and Li:
“…I am concerned, as a matter of best practice, about the process and impacts of suspending an organization…in such a manner,” Stringer wrote.
The Dwellers provided The Villager with an audiotape phone recording of Stetzer and Li explaining to Boyd why they had decided to temporarily suspend the group.
On the tape, Stetzer notes that one applicant, East of Essex — before ever coming to C.B. 3 to review its liquor license — had withdrawn after first being contacted by the Dwellers.
In his letter to Stetzer and Li, Stringer further wrote: “While I understand the view that the [Dwellers] may have detracted from community input by influencing certain applicants to withdraw from the board’s process, I do not believe a ‘suspension’ of the organization is the most effective response to such a concern. The act of suspending a community organization for lawful conduct from a program promoting community input without a fully deliberative process has implications for the transparency and fairness of community board governance,” Stringer stated. “For these reasons, I ask that the board reconsider its current policy of excluding organizations…to ensure that its mission of representing and responding to community concerns remains fully transparent and open to public scrutiny.”
On the tape, Diem asked Stetzer and Li if they believe she is not allowed to ask a nightlife operator — with an application for a new nightlife establishment 100 feet away from her door, i.e. East of Essex — to withdraw the application.
“I think, legally, you can do anything you want,” Stetzer responded. But she later added, “I think the [community board] office is the appropriate place for them to contact.”
Boyd said there has been a “breakdown of communication” between C.B. 3 and the Dwellers, which she attributed to the Ludlow House (Soho House) liquor license application, which the board ultimately recommended to deny. According to Boyd, Stetzer did not agree with part of the Dwellers’ strategy in opposing the license, specifically, a petition drive.
On the tape, Li says she and Stetzer also discussed the suspension with Alexandra Militano, chairperson of the board’s S.L.A. Committee, and that all three were on board with the decision.
At their full-board meeting this Tues., Oct. 22, board members held a vigorous discussion about Li’s action and how to address it.
Li said that she had “struggled with” making the decision, and only did so “after consultation and substantial deliberation with the Executive Committee.” She said that, regarding “next steps,” her plan is to create a task force that will look at the whole issue of how the board interacts with block associations on State Liquor Authority issues. This body will be made up of members of the board’s Executive and S.L.A. committees. A resolution will be voted on by the task force, which will then be put up for a vote by the full board. Whatever the full board votes to do, that will be the board’s policy, she assured. Li took full and complete responsibility for the decision to suspend the Dwellers.
Li added that both the borough president’s legal counsel and the city’s Law Department found nothing illegal in her action.
However, for her part, Stetzer said really she is to blame for creating the whole issue since it was her idea, a year ago, to create the referral list of block associations, feeling it would be helpful in the process in which community members interact with liquor license applicants.
Anne Johnson, a former C.B. 3 chairperson, derided the Dwellers, saying there’s no way they could be considered a block association.
“How is LES Dwellers a block association?” she asked. “They represent ‘Hell Square.’ This is an organization that represents an entire area and is a one-issue organization. I don’t see how they get block association status. The point is moot.”
Hell Square has been defined as a nine-block area bounded by East Houston, Delancey, Allan and Essex Sts. According to Boyd, in this area, there are 62 establishments with full liquor licenses, 51 of which stay open till 4 a.m.
Boyd later told The Villager that the Dwellers actually have “five chapters,” spread out over the neighborhood, and that members from the affected chapter are the ones who weigh in on any given bar issue.
Ariel Palitz, owner of Sutra Lounge, at First Avenue and First St. and a member of the board’s S.L.A. Committee, said she’s feeling the strain of the new intense focus on the committee by anti-bar watchdogs.
“Things are getting out of control in our neighborhoods, in our meetings and in the press,” she said. “For over four months I have been videotaped at meetings for hours by a strange man.” Boyd said she didn’t know this man.
Palitz did acknowledge that the C.B. 3 area has “a diversity-of-business dilemma,” referring to the oversaturation by bars.
Chad Marlow, who has been on the board for one year, urged the board members to hold a vote that night on whether to lift the Dwellers’ suspension.
“I think what has happened to the Dwellers has not reflected well on the board,” he said. He added that there is nothing in the City Charter or the board’s bylaws that authorizes the board’s chairperson to suspend a block association.
“And I’m concerned on the First Amendment — this denies the right of a group to assemble and speak as one group,” Marlow said. “And another problem is called a ‘chilling effect’ — if you speak out in a certain manner or in a certain way, you will not be allowed to participate in the process.
“We need to restore confidence in this board and to restore proper procedures,” Marlow added. “And we cannot, cannot come anywhere near trampling on First Amendment rights.”
Ayo Harrington, another new board member, seconded Marlow.
“I do not think this board has the right to define a block association, and there is no geographic area for a block association,” she asserted. “People have a right to represent and call themselves what they want.”
Jessica Silver, Stringer’s C.B. 3 liaison, clarified that while the borough president has called on Li and Stetzer to reconsider the suspension, he didn’t tell them how — or when — to do this.
Dominic Berg, speaking from experience as a past C.B. 3 chairperson, defended Li’s process. He said there were many times as chairperson when he faced “gray areas” where it was unclear what to do, and had to make tough decisions.
Marlow later made a formal motion to have the board vote on whether to lift the Dwellers’ suspension. But Berg immediately countered with a motion to have the board vote on whether to “table” Marlow’s motion, and the board overwhelmingly approved Berg’s proposal, meaning Marlow’s motion is in limbo indefinitely.
Afterward, Boyd said, “I was disheartened by the board’s inaction. We still have legal options — we feel the suspension was unwarranted.”
The Dwellers are a multicultural group with mostly people in advertising and P.R., Boyd noted. They’re savvy with social media, and are getting people involved who are under age 30, and in one case, as young as 24, which is unusual for this kind of a community group, she noted.
“I think we’re getting discredited because we’re too effective,” Boyd said.
Stetzer did not return a phone call and e-mail requesting comment from either her or Li.