Volume 75, Number 7 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Fields rebuts Stringer, who rebuts back in board flap

By Lincoln Anderson

It seems Scott Stringer’s report on the community boards may have hit a nerve with Borough President C. Virginia Fields.

Last Tuesday, Fields fired off a letter to Stringer taking issue with his report’s findings. She also issued a press release headlined: “Fields Sets Record Straight on Stringer Board Report.”

Fields’s press release was faxed to The Villager from the Community Board 2 office, with someone having excitedly written on its upper right-hand corner in magic marker in big letters, “Now Print This!”

Last week, The Villager ran an article on Stringer’s report, which prominently cites Bob Rinaolo’s conflict of interest that rocked the Greenwich Village community board at the end of last year as an example of why the boards need to be reformed.

Stringer, the Upper West Side Assemblymember who is one of roughly a dozen Democratic candidates running for borough president, issued his report three weeks ago. Among its findings, the report states that conflicts of interest on the 12 Manhattan community boards are not being dealt with; unreported lobbying is occurring; accountability of board staff performance is uneven; the boards are not equitably funded; the appointment process of members is “highly politicized;” and there are widespread vacancies.

Fields’s press release says her letter to Stringer “refutes many of the allegations made by Stringer” as well as “corrects several inaccuracies” in his report.

Specifically, Fields took exception to the Stringer report’s statement that “Conflicts of Interest Laws are unenforceable and, in turn, often ignored.” “The assemblyman makes reference to an issue involving a former member of Community Board 2,” Fields’s press release states. “In the case that Stringer uses as an example, the community board followed the Conflicts of Interest Board’s legal process. Additionally, after the member’s appeal was denied, he stepped down from the position for which he was being challenged.”

Fields was referring to the case of Rinaolo, who has become a sort of poster boy for the problems and vagaries of enforcing conflict of interest regulations on community boards. For three and a half years, Rinaolo chaired C.B. 2’s Business Committee, which makes advisory recommendations on liquor license applications. In May 2003, the Conflicts of Interest Board 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 Greenwich Village restaurant/bars.

Eight months after COIB’s ruling affecting Rinaolo, in January 2004, Jim Smith, then-C.B. 2 chairperson, appealed the ruling to COIB.

In August 2004, the appeal was denied, and a still unwilling Rinaolo was finally forced to step down in December 2004. In the end, he had continued as head of the board’s Business Committee for 19 months after COIB’s advisory opinion was issued. During the whole episode, only a few board members and the board’s district manager, Art Strickler, were aware of the conflict of interest ruling against Rinaolo.

The Stringer campaign issued a statement in response to Fields’s response to his report.

“Assemblymember Stringer’s analysis of the incident at Community Board 2 does not criticize the outcome, but rather the inherent flaws, in the city’s Conflicts of Interest Laws that rely on self-policing and allow conflicts such as these to fester,” Stringer’s response stated. “His proposals for reform would reduce the potential for conflicts of interest and restore integrity to the boards.”

Among his suggested reforms, Stringer has proposed all board chairpersons and committee chairpersons be required to divulge any conflicts of interest.

Fields apparently also took exception to the Stringer report’s statement that Conflict of Interest Laws have been “subverted” on the East Village/Lower East Side’s Community Board 3, as well as Board 2. Specifically, Stringer’s report says: “On Manhattan’s Community Boards 2 and 3…members have utilized a legal loophole to subvert Conflicts of Interest Laws.”

Fields’s press release doesn’t mention C.B. 3, but her letter must have.

Stringer’s response to Fields said: “The borough president’s statement that she is ‘not aware of any Conflict of Interest Law violations regarding Community Board 3’ goes directly to the point of Assemblymember Stringer’s recommendations for reform: there is no current requirement for conflicts of interest disclosure, and therefore no systematic way to quickly identify conflicts.”

Fields also objected to Stringer’s charge that the $2.6 million annually allocated to the 12 Manhattan community boards is not parceled out equitably. Fields countered that all the boards receive a uniform budget of $180,558 for personnel and overhead. She noted that the 1990 Charter revision added a separate unit of appropriation for district office rent, heat, light and power. “Some boards, however, such as Community Boards 1 and 2, are in rent-free spaces and therefore reflect a lower budget,” the Fields response says.

Yet, according to the Stringer report, both C.B. 1, representing Lower Manhattan, and C.B. 2 receive more city funding than C.B. 3 — which does not have free rent for its district office. “Even after subtracting rent, significant disparities remain [between board allocations],” the Stringer report states. Stringer backs reapportioning funds to boards based on their districts’ populations.

Fields also bristled at Stringer’s statement that the community board “appointment process is highly politicized.” Stringer’s study cites The Villager’s reporting on “both new appointments and arbitrary removals leading up to elections for Community Board 2 chairperson in both 2003 and 2005.”

In her defense, Fields stated: “The Charter mandates that all community board members must live in, work in or have a professional or other significant interest in that board’s district. Nevertheless, during the applicants’ interview process certain additional factors are taken into consideration, such as the individual’s level of participation, the ability to communicate effectively, problem-solving abilities and a degree of interaction within the interviewing group.”

Yet, Stringer’s response to Fields noted: “In at least one reported case on Community Board 2 — where there were as many as seven vacancies [before last month’s election] — two long-serving members [Jo Hamilton and Tobi Bergman] were not reappointed by the borough president, and repeated requests by the local councilmember [Christine Quinn] for their reinstatement were denied, even when presented as two of the councilmember’s own appointments…. Assemblymember Stringer believes that the politics of appointment and the widespread incidence of vacancies is a problem in need of immediate attention.”

The borough president appoints all 50 members of each community board, but local councilmembers recommend half.

In addition, Fields complained that Stringer’s report says the community boards are “not subject to any review, not held to any standard.” In her response, she maintained that all boards are audited by the city comptroller and that all community board staff are city employees subject to city Conflict of Interest Board regulations.

Stringer is calling for a special panel to review the boards’ actions and also for ongoing professional training for the boards’ staff members.

As for which member of C.B. 3 has a conflict of interest, as alleged in Stringer’s report, it remains a mystery.

Stringer told The Villager the report “isn’t about gotcha” but about making reforms.

“I assume it was some bizarre reference to me — because of Bob Rinaolo. Everybody in the world thought it was me,” said David McWater, C.B. 3 chairperson. Like Rinaolo, McWater is a bar owner. Yet, unlike Rinaolo, he was never chairperson of the board’s committee that reviews liquor licenses.

“I’m a big believer that when you’re in a position like I am, you have to do more, not less” to avoid conflict of interest, McWater said. “If somebody can find something I did wrong, God bless ’em, because I’m so careful about this stuff.”

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