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 boards 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 Boards opinion, Fields noted of herself and her staff, referring to the advisory opinion that applied to Rinaolos case. Yet, she said, she felt Smith and Rinaolo had a right to appeal the opinion. In August 2004, COIB rejected Smiths 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 Swankys, two restaurant/bars in Greenwich Village.
Community board members have reported that at the borough presidents 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 shouldnt chair a zoning committee, or, in other words, that one shouldnt chair a committee in ones 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 shes willing to give community board members some leeway Theyre 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. Thats where the decisions are made to lead the board.
Eight months after COIBs 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 COIBs initial ruling for Rinaolo to step down as Business Committee chairperson.
Asked why it took Smith more than half a year just to appeal COIBs initial opinion, Fields said she couldnt 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 Fieldss. Told of that, Fieldss scoffed, Pet?
. Cmon, were 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 boards chairperson after the contentious conflict of interest goings-on, Fields didnt 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 COIBs advisory opinion from an anonymous source last December and reported on the situation, only three board members and the boards 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 boards leadership.
Citing Board 2s historic adherence to the Sunshine Laws, openness and transparency, Ed Gold, a veteran board member, asked Smith why board members werent made aware of the conflict of interest advisory opinion regarding Rinaolo and of Smith and Rinaolos 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 COIBs 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 boards 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 doesnt lose credibility.
Smith rejected Hoylmans 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 3s 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 presidents stated guideline that members shouldnt 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 boards 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 Transportations 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 presidents rules on not chairing a committee in the field of ones occupation, appointed David Crane. Simpson recuses herself from voting on D.O.T. issues.
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 peoples confidence in asking, he explained. Without it, theres 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 COIBs attention.
For his part, Smith said he wouldnt provide a copy of his letter to COIB appealing the advisory opinion. As Ive said before, I am discreet about a members 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 Rinaolos case, Smith didnt provide an answer other than to say that between his statements in The Villager and at last Thursdays board meeting hes said about all hes got to say.