Volume 75, Number 45 | March 29 -April 04 2006

Some Trust board members don’t bite on ‘gag order’

By Lincoln Anderson

Several board of directors members of the Hudson River Park Trust found it hard to swallow a new set of rules the authority is proposing that would effectively ban the 13-member board from speaking to individuals outside the board about pending matters concerning the Hudson River Park.

What some are criticizing as a “gag order” was discussed at the Trust’s board meeting last Thursday at Pace University. Specifically, the language proposed for approval was: “Trust directors, officers and employees shall avoid any unauthorized ex parte communications concerning a pending matter and avoid comment about such a matter outside the Trust director’s, officer’s and employee’s official duties.”

The rule on board members’ outside communications was tacked onto a code of ethics that the Trust is in the process of trying to adopt. The Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005, signed into law by Governor Pataki a few months ago, requires every New York State authority to, among other things, adopt a code of ethics that, at a minimum, includes standards established in the state’s Public Officers Law.

However, four board members expressed reservations about limiting board members’ speech to nonboard individuals.

“I think that it’s an infringement on our free speech, basically,” said Julie Nadel, a Tribeca waterfront activist.
Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, said, “This raises not only a First Amendment issue but a whistle-blower issue. People should have a right to speak out. I am troubled by this because of the potential barriers to free speech. This is not the United States Supreme Court where every communication is strictly regulated.”

Former State Senator Franz Leichter, a co-author of the park’s founding legislation, said, “If we appear at a public event, a community board, if we’re asked a question, it’s very unclear what we can comment on” under the proposed regulation.

Joe Rose, a former City Planning commissioner, also raised concerns about curbing board members’ communications.

On the other side of the debate, Diana Taylor, an appointee of Governor Pataki's to the board and the girlfriend of Mayor Bloomberg, spoke for more discretion outside the board.

“We need to be careful about what we’re doing and what the staff is doing,” she said, noting the Trust should have “a state-of-the-art ethics document.”

Larry Goldberg, recently appointed to the board by Borough President Scott Stringer to replace Madelyn Wils, offered support for the new guidelines, indicating he didn’t feel they were that onerous.

“I read them as vanilla,” Goldberg said. “People don’t talk to other people during the contracting process — [but if they do] that causes lots of problems,” he said, referring to how contractors’ bidding on park projects could be affected if board members discuss the bidding or other aspects of the job.

Charles “Trip” Dorkey, the board’s chairperson, called it “disrespectful” to raise questions about the ethics code, since it was the third version that the board members had seen.

But Leichter said that the final product, not the process, is what really matters.

“I think it’s more important that we pass something correctly,” he stressed.

Adrian Benepe, the city’s Parks commissioner, said he didn’t have a strong opinion on the proposed regulation, but that when two individuals like Leichter and Stern, with long “unblemished” records in government, take issue with something in an ethics code, it bears listening to.

Nadel proposed that the board just adopt the standard ethics code — without the speech curb — but Dorkey said he didn’t share her view.

Due to the concerns expressed at the meeting, Dorkey agreed to hold off on a vote on the ethics code. At the suggestion of Rose, Dorkey agreed that a governance committee be formed to look more carefully at the regulations.

Afterwards, Nadel told The Villager, “The way it was written amounted to censorship in the guise of ethics. I don’t know if it was intentional or unintentional. All I know is what I read. I was happy with the discussion and comments the board members made.” Nadel added of the outside-speech ban, “I don’t think that it’s enforceable.”

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