Volume 73, Number 39 | January 28 - February 03, 2004

King Day controversy roils C.B. 2

By Lincoln Anderson

A member of Community Board 2 angrily gave her resignation at last week’s full board meeting after the board’s January Landmarks Committee meeting was scheduled on Martin Luther King Day for the second year in a row.

Before resigning, Shirley Smith, who is African-American, read aloud a two-page letter protesting the scheduling of the meeting by Sean Sweeney, the committee’s chairperson, for King Day.

Smith, a member of the Landmarks Committee who has been on the board a year, concluded by saying, “I cannot in good conscience, continue to work for this community through Community Board 2, when members are allowed to engage in activities that are un-American and not for the good of the community…. I respectfully tender my resignation as a member of Community Board 2, effective immediately, and will reconsider only when all committee chairs have respect for all Americans and national holidays.”

Sweeney, an important Downtown figure, the director of the Soho Alliance community group and president of Downtown Independent Democrats — one of the most influential political clubs in Lower Manhattan — said he was “blindsided” by Smith’s resignation and that she had never called him or contacted him about the issue.

“My very good friend who worked with me on Alan Gerson’s [City Council] campaign…,” Sweeney said of Smith, sounding wounded after she had finished reading her letter. As Sweeney spoke, Smith stood with a hand on her hip, glaring at him.

Sweeney said that the issue is the timing of the hearings schedule of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which he’s tried to change for three or four years to no avail, which gives him no choice but to hold the meeting on King Day.

Last year, after Smith protested that meetings shouldn’t be held on national holidays, the board’s executive committee voted to pass a resolution amending the board’s bylaws so that meetings would not be held on national holidays. But the resolution was subsequently watered down at the full board meeting, with the language stating that meetings can be held on national holidays at the discretion of the board chairperson or committee chairperson.

At last Thursday’s full board meeting, no one spoke in support of Sweeney’s decision to hold the Landmarks Committee meeting on M.L.K. Day — except for Democratic District Leader David Reck, who said the issue was getting “personal.” On the other hand, several members, including notably Rosemary McGrath and Aubrey Lees, spoke forcefully in support of Smith and for not scheduling the meeting on the holiday.

“When it came up last year, I found it appalling,” McGrath said. “I don’t care if Landmarks has to wait a day.”

“With all due respect to Sean, I completely agree with Shirley,” said Lees, as she stood to speak, her two dachshunds straining at their leashes. “It’s disgraceful to have a meeting on Martin Luther King Day. I think it reflects badly on the board — especially since we discussed this last year. This is not just important to one of us, but all of us…. We’re back in the 1950s.”

Barbara Jeter, another African-American who is a new appointee to the board, rose in defense of Smith’s position.

“If we cannot recognize the meaning of this man [Dr. King] in Community Board 2, then we are in a bad state,” she said. “If anybody can say that I’m not here for that purpose, then I don’t belong in this room.”

McGrath said the committee could meet on Saturdays or Sundays, to which Sweeney said, “What about the Jews and Christians?”

The temperature in the room rose noticeably. At one point when Sweeney protested loudly, Harry, one of Lees’ dogs, started barking excitedly at him, at which Lees just laughed.

Jim Smith, the board’s chairperson, said he was taken off-guard by Smith’s resignation.

“I did not know this was coming and I hope you will reconsider,” he said. “I’m profoundly flabbergasted by it.”

He noted it takes 30 days to change the board’s bylaws and asked Shirley Smith to stay on the board while they try to address the problem.

Chad Marlow, president of Village Independent Democrats and a board member, defended Sweeney’s character, saying, “I think he made a grave mistake — but certainly not with bad intentions.”

Lees confided to The Villager that Sweeney’s main issue is that he doesn’t think he would have enough time to write his report for the full board meeting if the committee meeting’s date was changed from Monday — plus he is “stubborn.” But Lees also criticized him for being “insensitive.”

Brad Hoylman, president of Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats and a board member, said in a telephone interview, “I don’t know — if the federal, state and city government can take that day off, I think little Community Board 2 could take that day off. Somehow we can find a way to do it.”

In a follow-up interview, Sweeney explained the timing that he claims has forced him to hold the meeting on a Monday: For example, taking the month of this January, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s agenda — which Board 2 uses to set its own agenda — would be published Jan. 6 in the City Record; L.P.C. would then notify C.B. 2 on Jan. 8 by fax; on Jan. 13, a C.B. 2 office employee would mail out L.P.C.’s agenda to board members and community groups; people might not get the mailing with sufficient time left to organize a turnout by that Friday, Sweeney said, so it’s better to schedule the board’s Landmarks Committee meeting for the next Monday, Jan. 19 (which happens to be M.L.K. Day); this, in turn gives Sweeney two days to write his report for the full board to vote on at its full meeting on Jan. 22.

“Since the day Greenwich Village has been landmarked, the meeting has been held on the third Monday of the month, because that’s what the schedule dictates,” Sweeney said. If the meeting were to be held the day after King Day, “It only gives me two days to write 18 to 19 resolutions,” he said.

Sweeney added that other chairpersons of C.B. 2 committees have chosen to hold meetings on national holidays. “Lisa LaFrieda had it on Columbus Day,” he said of the Sidewalks, Public Facilities and Public Access Committee. “Melissa Sklarz is a strong labor leader. She had it on Labor Day,” he said of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Committee.

Sweeney said Jan. 19 also happened to be his birthday, yet he still held the Landmarks Committee meeting that date, forcing him to cut short a three-day weekend at his house in Montauk.

Asked what he thought of Dr. King, Sweeney said, “One of my heroes — he laid down his life in a Christ-like manner for his fellow men.” He said his other hero was Bobby Sands, the I.R.A. soldier who died from a hunger strike in prison.

Sweeney also blasted Shirley Smith’s attendance, saying out of 20 Landmarks Committee meetings she has had to attend since being appointed to the committee, she’s only been to five, had 10 excused absences and five unexcused absences.

Sweeney, not one known to shy away from making inflammatory comments, couldn’t resist making light of Shirley Smith’s not wanting to attend committee meetings on King Day. “I think she wants to watch ‘Everyone Loves Raymond,’ ” he said.

Reached for her response, Shirley Smith said she’d have no comment on Sweeney’s remarks on her attendance or on his jibe at her.

“I have to take the high ground on this,” she said. “I will not allow anyone to bring me down to their level. It’s not about me. It’s not about Sean. It’s about not having committee meetings on national holidays.”

She said she’ll give the board another month to work out the issue and see what happens then.

As to Sweeney’s claims of other committee chairpersons holding meetings on national holidays, LaFrieda said while she has held her committee meeting on Columbus Day in the past, she’s sensitive to her fellow committee members’ views.

“I hold a meeting, but I ask my members first,” LaFrieda said. “But I didn’t have one on Columbus Day this year because I didn’t have my agenda ready. I felt very strongly for Shirley,” LaFrieda said. “He should have spoken to her. He should have asked for help. He should have said, ‘I’ll hold the meeting Tuesday, and you help me type my report.’ ”


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