Stringer asks C.B. 3 to ‘reconsider’ ban of LES Dwellers group

Ariel Palitz, left, told Diem Boyd she’s concerned about “a strange man” obsessively videotaping her at S.L.A. Committee meetings.

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.

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.

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15 Responses to Stringer asks C.B. 3 to ‘reconsider’ ban of LES Dwellers group

  1. Since when does Lincoln Anderson actually report the news?

  2. Yet another example of Susan Stetzer thinking she can run the L.E.S. like a fiefdom. How she ever thought it was acceptable to punish a community group for not exercising its speech rights in accordance with her plan is laughable. Li has done nothing to curb Susan's impulse toward petty

  3. Many thanks to Scott Stringer for weighing in on this. It is important for community groups to have the support of their elected officials when seeking out their democratic rights. It would be wonderful for community groups to have the support of their Community Board manager as well.

  4. Big thanks to Stringer! (I hope Stetzer wasn't hurt that the Dwellers communicated with the BP office directly rather than going through her. Haha!) This public smackdown is about as good as one could expect from a politician. The community can only hope there's muscle to go with it should CB3 officials attempt to stand their ground.

  5. Our neighborhood has always been filled with unorganized organizers. If CB leadership doesn't understand that it's their job to keep them in the fold, then I don't know what they think there job is. Inclusiveness should be any CB's primary mandate — suspensions come off as power plays. Not good no matter how unruly the residents. CB leadership must be the bigger persons, or they undermine their own authority.

  6. I've no idea what specifically the LES Dwellers did that prompted this action, and for me that is the issue: What part of "being fully transparent and open to public scrutiny", (which they demand of the CB through Stringer), did the LES group allow for? What did they do? Who did they call and what did they say? Did they write letters? Did they make threats?

    Why has no one posted the alleged tape of the CB phone conversation so we can decide for ourselves? Was it legally obtained?

    If in fact a stealth maneuver pressuring a potential licensee, that would be no different than an anti abortion group using back channels to coerce Planned Parenthood from seeking a medical license in the community, and no different than a bigoted group pressuring the 13th Street Center from considering opening an LGBTQ medical drop in center/satellite in the East Village before coming before the CB. It's about equality of process. And transparency. Where is theirs? Nothing about their actions toward the applicants (if indeed there were actions/letters/phone calls) on their website. One vague and anonymous report of a call to meet or have a forum. Sure got that Stringer letter up there fast. Few if any are arguing with the problem, which we all share, but rushing to the First Amendment for relief while offering no reciprocal transparency is simply hypocritical.

    The issue is not the type of entity, it's the transparency of, and the fairness of, the process, and the Community Board has the authority to handle the process for all comers.

    This is a community wide fight. We are all dealing with bars and noise. BOTH the LES group and the CB erred on this one. For LES, it was a slippery slope of an example for others with less noble goals to emulate. For the CB, it was reactionary. LES ought to bring all of that energy to the Board, to politic to win seats on the Board. You want power, go get it. And the CB? The CB has no authority to "deauthorize" a community group in the meeting setting, why did they even think that would be possible? What are you going to do, keep them from coming to the meetings in a group, or speaking? How very high school. Or maybe right wing.

    Clearly the boiling point has been reached on the LES. It was time for a summit a long time ago. Maybe a moratorium. Nothing but bars is not a diversity of businesses, but behind the scenes pressure toward potential applicants? That opens the door for harassment to every type of applicant. That's also how landlords kick old people out of buildings.

    Hopefully The Villager will report on what sort of communications the potential applicants received.

    And for those following the S5824 HRPT air rights transfer issue, note that another $250,000 of your taxpayer money is now going to be spent, on top of the prior hush money, to defend not only Sheldon Silver, but indeed the entire NYS Assembly, which is a defendant in the sexual harassment suit. (and it took a Freedom of Information Request to get this information):
    $250,000 that could have been spent for parks, that could have been spent for Pier 40 repair. Because our Assemblymembers did nothing to stop sexual misconduct. Now we're going to reward them by letting them give air rights gifts to west side developers? Stop the law now.
    Write to Governor Cuomo: "Governor Cuomo, do NOT sign S5824"

  7. BP Stringer should be applauded for calling into question CB 3 's suspension of a very legitimate community group called the LES Dwellers. That group is only trying to defend its neighborhood from the effect of an onslaught of liquor licenses coming to the LES.

    Like the LES , other, downtown areas like the Meatpacking District or Petrossian Square are turning into a living hell for residents due to the rowdy crowds and terrible traffic brought on by the increasing number of late nite / early AM venues with liquor licenses. Groups like the LES Dwellers are doing a public service for locals in the area now unfortunately called hells square.

  8. Having attended the Oct 22 meeting, I was appalled at how the BP's letter was dismissed by CB3. If upstarts, outsiders, and crackpots are allowed to be suspended around here, most of CB3 would have to resign, and the East Village would be almost emptied. Everything admired about the EV was built on these sorts of folks.

    Stetzer was right, good intentions no doubt, but having a "list" is wrong. There never should have been a Block Assoc' policy in the first place. Then, you can't suspend a group from something that does not exist, and this debacle would have never happened.

    Things have gotten out of hand over at CB3, and like any political body, the only way to fix it is to clean house. Fresh blood is required for a fresh start. This is only going to get worse unless members step down, and that should begin with the chairperson. She handled the meeting terribly and severally embarrassed the Borough President.

  9. The CB3 cabal- Stetzer, Berg, Crane, Li, Jones, Hewitt, Militano along with the rest of the malleable Exec committee and lackeys on the board (Kaplan, Johnson), conspires to the bitter end. The decision to ignore Stringer was a bad move. CB3 has officially backed themselves into the corner, and no amount of plotting is going to get them out of it. Board Chair Li the very people who manipulated you (and still do) –Berg and Stetzer will find a way save their own ass in the end be rest assured. There is one power play left, and the only person who can make it is you Li. It's bold, it's big and it requires balls…and it will save your political ass. Distance yourselves from Berg, Stetzer etc. and then lead the charge for a new way of governing CB3 which means you expose and break up the cabal. You keep Susan in her place when she overreaches, and you tell Berg to take a hike because you are board chair not him. You Li need to own this bigger than you have and part of doing this is by standing up to the people who put you in this debacle. The taped phone call won't go away –oops can't change that, but you can change how this plays out. That's if you have the gumption to do it.

    • Excellent and very insightful post. Unfortunitely, Li was chosen as Berg's successor BECAUSE she is weak and will never challenge the "cabal". They picked Li as the new chair – she was only 29 years old at the time, incidentially – because she had never bucked the executive board as a regular member and was certain to do whatever she was told (in return for them supporting her political ambitions). The board needs a new chair – and I would start by looking at the couple of members who stood up to the exec on this very issue. That's the type of chair the board needs!!!

  10. Two worst community board chairs in Village history were both "lees" – Aubrey Lees (CB2) and Gigi Li (CB3). What a coincidence! :)

  11. How do I sign up for LES Dwellers? As a long-time resident of the EV, I can attest to the inordinate amount of noise on weekends until 4 am and the vandalism that ensues. We need fewer bars and new CB leadership that doesn't pander to the bar owners.

  12. There are no organizational rules for block associations or community groups. The only consistent criteria for a block association is that it covers a defined area. If a group is concerned about one issue, it would be more descriptive to call it a community action group…but a group can define itself as it pleases. Community Boards are advisory bodies created to represent the community to government and to our elected officials. They have absolutely no authority over community groups so the concept of a suspension by a community board is ludicrous. As community activists, we may suspect that some people's input at community meetings has more weight than others, but everyone has the right to speak.

    It sometimes happens that a Board Manager, assumes more power than he/she should have. Never having met Ms. Stetzer but having heard a lot about her, that seems to be the case here. It's up to the CB3 members to rein her in and if the Board is composed of members who can't to do this, then they should be replaced with those who will. Her behavior is imperious and outrageous.

  13. The first thing new MBP Gail Brewer should do when she takes office is to sit Gigi Li down and tell her she is not running for chair again in 2014 – if she doesn't agree, she doesn't get reappointed to CB3. THAT is how a BP who does not tolerate suppressing free speech and excluding legitimate community groups from the community baord process acts. Brewer to the rescue! (we hope)

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