BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | It was a rough night for Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li, who found herself under sharp attack by a fellow board member who accused her of “consistently and regularly” failing to appoint any African-American or Latino members to high-ranking positions on the board’s committees, subcommittees and task forces during Li’s one-year tenure.
The stinging accusation, with its thinly veiled suggestion that racial bias was behind it all, was made by board member Ayo Harrington, who is African-American, at Wednesday night’s C.B. 3 full board meeting at P.S. 20, at 166 Essex St.
The matter is scheduled to be investigated by the city’s district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission following a letter Harrington wrote to Li and the Borough President’s Office regarding the issue.
Harrington’s remarks sparked a heated one-hour discussion about the board’s current appointment policy in which all the chairpersons of the various committees, subcommittees and task forces are selected by the board’s chairperson. Some board members called for a complete overhaul of the system.
A visibly upset Li angrily denied the suggestion that race played any role in her decision-making. She told Harrington that as a Chinese-American woman, “the issue of diversity is not lost on me. It’s something I think about every single day.”
Li took over the leadership of the community board about a year ago when former C.B.3 Chairperson Dominic Berg resigned. At Tuesday night’s meeting, she said she was “extremely upset by the manner in which these allegations have been made and communicated.
“I’ve worked tirelessly to increase diversity on this board,” she said. “I take this very seriously and I’m pleased that an E.E.O.C. investigation will take place.”
The controversy began last year when Harrington, who has an extensive background in children’s education, asked Li to be named as the replacement for the outgoing chairperson of C.B. 3’s Human Services, Health, Disability & Seniors/Youth & Education Committee.
In Harrington’s letter — copies of which were distributed at Tuesday’s meeting — she said that Li told her “a member had to be on the community board for a year before being considered” for a chairmanship.
Harrington further noted that two other board members — one of whom is African-American — asked to jointly co-chair the committee but were also rejected by Li, who said that C.B. 3’s bylaws do not allow for committee co-chairpersons.
“While it is correct our bylaws do not allow for co-chairs,” Harrington wrote, “you subsequently appointed two White members as co-chairs of that committee, one of which had been on the board for six months.”
Harrington continued, writing, “In the past year there have been several opportunities for chair appointments…yet not one has resulted in a Black or Latino being appointed as a committee chair by you.
“Currently, there are eleven White and three Asian members who chair all the committees, replicating a pattern of Black and Latino exclusion from appointed leadership on the community board.”
In a copy of Li’s response to the letter, which was exclusively obtained by this newspaper, Li wrote that she was “disturbed and appalled by the baseless allegations stated in your letter… . The focus of a community board should be about service, and I remain dedicated to the work of serving all in Community Board 3.”
Harrington told board members at the meeting, which was attended by about 100 local residents, that Li’s response to her letter infuriated her.
“I’m disappointed by her reaction,” she said. “These are not ‘baseless allegations.’ I want this issue of race to be discussed and not ignored by the chairperson.”
Harrington’s remarks drew applause from many board members.
“This is not an attack on the chairs or Gigi,” she stated. “My concern is about the longtime overtness of there being no Black and Latino committee chair and how critical this matter is to us.”
However, several board members spoke out strongly in support of Li. One of those, Herman Hewitt, C.B. 3’s first vice chairperson and an African-American, said he has served on the board for nearly 35 years “and I wouldn’t have remained if I found one trace of racism.
“Over the years,” he said, “we’ve had many African-Americans serving as chairs. Gigi is not a person who discriminates. We don’t discriminate against each other on this board.”
Former C.B. 3 Chairperson Berg, who held the position for four years, also called it unfair to insinuate that Li might be guilty of racial discrimination.
“This is an unfortunate conversation,” he said. “Making appointments is always a really sticky situation. It’s always a challenge to get the right people to do the work. You have to take a lot into consideration — including politics.
“It’s not about race,” Berg said. “This is the most diverse group of board members I’ve seen serving on the board for some time.”
Harrington was criticized by board member Joye Meghan for bringing the matter to the attention of the Borough President’s Office and the E.E.O.C. instead of having an internal discussion.
But Harrington staunchly defended her action.
“This is not the first discussion that I’ve had with Gigi about race,” she said, “and the subject has always been dismissed. That’s why I sent the letter to The Borough President’s Office. My interest was to make this discussion happen.”