Volume 74, Number 47 | March 30 - April 05, 2005

B.P., board chair are unconflicted about handling of conflict case

By Lincoln Anderson

In the face of ongoing questions about their handling of a conflict of interest involving the former chairperson of the Community Board 2 Business Committee, the borough president and chairperson of C.B. 2 last week both continued to defend their actions.

Last Thursday morning, after a press conference at a Midtown firehouse, at which she called for backup electric generators for all city firehouses, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields fielded questions from The Villager about the conflict of interest that ultimately forced her to tell Jim Smith, C.B. 2 chairperson, and Bob Rinaolo that Rinaolo had to step down as chairperson of the Greenwich Village community board’s Business Committee.

Despite the fallout over the incident, Fields — who is running for mayor — maintains she, Smith and Rinaolo acted appropriately.

“We actually supported the Conflicts of Interest Board’s opinion,” Fields noted of herself and her staff, referring to the advisory opinion that applied to Rinaolo’s case. Yet, she said, she felt Smith and Rinaolo “had a right” to appeal the opinion. In August 2004, COIB rejected Smith’s appeal. “As soon as that decision was rendered, we told [Rinaolo] to step down — and that happened,” Fields said. However, Rinaolo did not step down as committee chairperson until four months later, in December.

In May 2003, COIB issued an advisory opinion stating that “owners of licensed liquor facilities, such as bars and restaurants, may not chair a community board committee that considers the licensing of such facilities.” Rinaolo owns The Garage and co-owns Senor Swanky’s, two restaurant/bars in Greenwich Village.

Community board members have reported that at the borough president’s orientation meeting for new board members — or at refresher training sessions for veteran members — an example for avoiding conflict of interest given is that an architect shouldn’t chair a zoning committee, or, in other words, that one shouldn’t chair a committee in one’s professional field. Yet, Rinaolo did chair a committee in his professional field for three and a half years.

Yet, despite the rules laid down by her staff at orientation meetings, Fields indicated she’s willing to give community board members some leeway — “They’re not my staff,” she noted — and indicated that all boards might not be held to the same standards. Instead, Fields — who appoints the board members — put the responsibility for how the boards function on the board chairpersons, noting they appoint the committee chairpersons.

“Community boards differ,” Fields said. “The community board elects the chairperson. That’s where the decisions are made to lead the board.”

Eight months after COIB’s ruling affecting Rinaolo, Smith appealed it in January 2004. According to a borough president spokesperson, COIB sent a letter to Smith in August 2004 rejecting his appeal. Smith claims he never received this letter and only became aware of the denial after asking COIB for its decision in December 2004, after which he asked Rinaolo to step down as Business Committee chairperson. Yet, according to Smith, Rinaolo wanted to keep fighting the ruling, and considered hiring an attorney.

In the end, it took more than a year and a half after COIB’s initial ruling for Rinaolo to step down as Business Committee chairperson.

Asked why it took Smith more than half a year just to appeal COIB’s initial opinion, Fields said she couldn’t get into, as she put it, the “timeline.”

As borough president, Fields has earned a reputation for appointing business owners to the community boards, which, in many cases, were previously seen as being anti-business. Rinaolo is a former chairperson of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce — though the conflict of interest ruling that pertained to him had nothing to do with his chamber affiliation.

To criticisms that she has swung the pendulum too far toward the business side, Fields said, “We have sought to be balanced in representation on the boards. When you look at the [business] people [on the boards], they also live in the community.” Business-owning board members have the same concerns as non-business-owning residents about issues such as traffic and litter, for example, Fields pointed out. (Community board members must either live or work in the board district.)

Despite her leniency in enforcing the conflict of interest opinion affecting Rinaolo, Fields denied she gave him special treatment. “I have a number of people on the community board who work hard,” she said. “Bob is among them. And I really appreciate the hard work.”

One C.B. 2 member, requesting anonymity, said he thought Rianolo had a close relationship with Fields, even calling him a “pet” of Fields’s. Told of that, Fields’s scoffed, “Pet?…. C’mon, we’re not in school.”

Rinaolo may be a candidate running for chairperson of Board 2 in June, when Smith must step down due to the two-year term limit. Asked if she thought Rinaolo should be the board’s chairperson after the contentious conflict of interest goings-on, Fields didn’t give an opinion. “I do not make decisions about who is board chairperson — that is the decision of the 50 members on the board,” she said.

Cool on hot seat

Later, at the C.B. 2 full board meeting that night, a few of those members put tough questions to Smith about his handling of the conflict of interest imbroglio.

Until The Villager received a copy of COIB’s advisory opinion from an anonymous source last December and reported on the situation, only three board members and the board’s district manager, or head office employee, were aware of the advisory opinion: Rinaolo, Smith, District Manager Art Strickler and reportedly an unnamed male board member within the board’s leadership.

Citing Board 2’s historic adherence to “the Sunshine Laws, openness and transparency,” Ed Gold, a veteran board member, asked Smith why board members weren’t made aware of the conflict of interest advisory opinion regarding Rinaolo and of Smith and Rinaolo’s efforts to fight it.

“You treated it as a secret,” Gold said.

“I have to object to the use of the word ‘secret,’ ” Smith replied.

Smith defended keeping the rest of the board in the dark, because, he said, it was “a matter concerning a member — and a sensitive matter.”

He defended Rinaolo as “an honorable man, a good man and a hell of a [committee] chairperson…who wanted very much to remain in that position until the very end.”

Meanwhile, Rinaolo was not present at the meeting, still on a three-month hiatus in Florida for undisclosed reasons, though with the graces of Smith, who has excused the absence. Rinaolo did not return phone calls for comment.

“The Conflicts of Interest Board said he had no right to hold that position,” Gold continued, adding that in recent weeks the borough president has made her opinion “crystal clear” that she agreed with COIB’s ruling from the start.

Though on the hot seat, Smith kept his usual cool.

“I still felt we owed it to that particular member to go the last mile,” Smith said, “to say we felt [the advisory opinion] was discriminatory.”

In the end, Smith said, “In the opinion of your chairperson, I felt it was a sensitive matter — that this was not a case for democracy.”

Shirley Secunda pointed out that in the past when Ruth Messinger was borough president, an advisory opinion barring board members who are consultants from doing work in the district was circulated to the entire board. Secunda said this should be standard procedure because a COIB advisory opinion can concern more than just one board member.

Keith Crandell, a longtime board member, asked Smith if he had discussed the original COIB opinion with the board’s vice chairpersons, to which Smith answered no, saying, “This was my act, this was my decision.”

Brad Hoylman, who two years ago ran against Smith for chairperson, also spoke, urging that the board should spell out “a clear procedure” for dealing with conflict of interest issues so that the board doesn’t lose “credibility.”

Smith rejected Hoylman’s idea, saying the main thing is to deal with each case fairly as it arises. “Certainly, we want to be credible with the people that we serve,” Smith said. “And we will achieve that by doing the right thing time and again down the road.”

Board 3’s take

To keep from having to decide time and again whether they are doing the right thing, Community Board 3, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, strictly abides by the borough president’s stated guideline that members shouldn’t chair committees in their professional fields. “We knew that David [McWater] could never chair the State Liquor Authority Committee — you learn that in the orientation classes,” said Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager. McWater, who owns several East Village bars, was a member of the board’s S.L.A. Committee, equivalent to the C.B. 2 Business Committee, but never sought to be its chairperson, and is now chairperson of the full board.

Stetzer said another C.B. 3 member, Pia Simpson — who is the Department of Transportation’s Manhattan deputy borough coordinator of highway inspections and quality insurance — probably would have made a topnotch Transportation Committee chairperson, but the board leadership, wanting to follow the borough president’s rules on not chairing a committee in the field of one’s occupation, appointed David Crane. Simpson recuses herself from voting on D.O.T. issues.

Strictly confidential

One secret that will probably never be known except to a few is who asked COIB for its advisory opinion in the first place. One known fact is that the requester is a “he.” The advisory opinion states COIB received the request from “a community board member with an ownership interest in a licensed liquor facility as to whether he may chair the community board committee which makes liquor licensing recommendations.”

Wayne Hawley, COIB general counsel, said the only thing public is the advisory opinion, while all other correspondence and information is confidential, per the City Charter. COIB would go to court to fight any effort to obtain any of this information, Hawley said.

“The idea is to protect people’s confidence in asking,” he explained. “Without it, there’s a chill in people asking.”

Besides giving people advisory opinions on whether they have a conflict of interest in terms of personal self-interest or direct economic gain, COIB also investigates and issues fines in instances where a whistleblower brings a case of past misconduct to COIB’s attention.

For his part, Smith said he wouldn’t provide a copy of his letter to COIB appealing the advisory opinion. “As I’ve said before, I am discreet about a member’s issues,” Smith said. “Even more so regarding correspondence about a member.”

Asked last Sunday why it took him more than half a year to appeal Rinaolo’s case, Smith didn’t provide an answer other than to say that between his statements in The Villager and at last Thursday’s board meeting he’s said about all he’s got to say.

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