Dissidents are raring for race after party dis, attack letter


By Lincoln Anderson

A group of Community Board 2 members are fuming over an anonymous attack letter that levels serious yet unsubstantiated charges at two of them, as well as a pointed snub by the board’s chairperson in not inviting five of them to her welcoming party for new board members.

The anonymous letter, sent to Borough President Scott Stringer in February, calls for him to remove Sean Sweeney and Don MacPherson from the Greenwich Village board. Four pages long and single-spaced, it is signed only “Members of Community Boards 1 & 2.”

“We send this letter anonymously because we feel threatened and intimidated by the people mentioned in this letter,” the writer or writers state in the first paragraph.

The letter accuses Sweeney — director of the Soho Alliance community organization and president of Downtown Independent Democrats political club — of racketeering, as well as conspiring to shake down Fortune 500 companies. It accuses MacPherson — who publishes the magazine Soho Journal — of conflicts of interest involving advertising in his magazine.

MacPherson and Sweeney have been strident critics of bar proliferation in Board 2, particularly in Soho.

As for the party, Maria Passannante Derr, Board 2’s chairperson, hosted a “meet and greet” for new board members last Wednesday at North Square on Waverly Pl., a restaurant owned by Judy Paul, another C.B. 2 member. Conspicuously not invited to the shindig were Sweeney, MacPherson, Lawrence Goldberg and the candidate they are supporting to challenge Derr for board chairperson in June, David Reck.

New board members were appointed by Stringer in April. Both Derr and Reck are courting their votes for the upcoming chairperson election.

Derr, by holding the private party, got the first shot at politicking with the new members.

An invitation to Anne Hearn, another board member, was mailed the day before the party, and she was not otherwise notified in time to attend.

Reck — chairperson of the board’s Zoning Committee — says the anonymous letter, as well as selective invitations to Derr’s party, are “symptomatic” of problems that have been plaguing the board the last two years.

“The heavy-handed tactics of operating the board — the recent anonymous letter, not inviting to this,” Reck said. “It’s getting to be absurd. It’s part of the Machiavellian nonsense that’s been going on like this for two years now, and that’s why I’m running for chairperson. We need to get back to business and democracy and reconnect with the community.”

Derr, for her part, defended the party. The invitation wasn’t sent on C.B. 2 letterhead, and was sent from her University Pl. law office.

The invitation stated: “Please join Community Board 2 Chair Maria Passannante Derr and your fellow Community Board 2 members for an informal meet and greet breakfast.”

Reck said everyone who went assumed it was an official C.B. 2 event.

“It is subterfuge!” Goldberg indignantly declared at last Thursday’s full C.B. 2 meeting.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, when asked by Goldberg at last week’s meeting if he thought what Derr did was right, said, “I would find that very distressing, to say the least. I would certainly hope that everyone would be invited to a Board 2-related event.”

It’s her party, derr says

“I have one thing to say: ‘It’s my party and I invite who I want to,” Derr told The Villager, then playfully half sang, “invite if I want to,” a la Lesley Gore’s 1963 pop hit.

Asked if there was a specific reason why Reck, Sweeney, MacPherson and Goldberg weren’t invited, Derr answered, “Oh, the contrarians…. I don’t think the contrarians want to come to any of my events…. I’m sure they’ll have their own function.”

Hearn got her invite letter a few hours after the event happened. Derr said she would have e-mailed her but didn’t have her e-mail address because Hearn has withheld it from the contact list given to board members. Hearn, however, said the board office has her e-mail address.

As for the anonymous attack letter, Reck says Derr should denounce it.

“It’s anonymous. The chairperson of the board should decry it,” said Reck.

But Derr hasn’t criticized the letter. And she’s hardly supporting her fellow board members Sweeney and MacPherson in the face of the nameless broadside.

“I think the letter contains serious allegations and there’s a long list of recipients, including the Department of Investigation and the Conflicts of Interest Board,” Derr noted. “It’s not under my jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry; I believe that would be up to the Department of Investigation or the Conflicts of Interest Board. But if anyone from my board is contacted regarding any kind of inquiry, I would ask them to cooperate.”

Asked if she knew who wrote the letter, Derr said, “I have no idea.”

Anonymous letters were a recurrent problem at C.B. 2 under the board’s late District Manager Arty Strickler, who died suddenly of a heart attack last month. Most recently, last March, Strickler admitted inserting an anonymous letter that slammed the Village Alliance business improvement district into board members’ packets prior to a vote on the BID’s proposed expansion. In a prior instance, an anonymous mailing hurtful to a former board member’s husband was postmarked with the board office’s postage meter.

Aubrey Lees, who led the board from 2001 to 2003, but wasn’t reappointed by Stringer last month, recalled the ongoing issues with anonymous letters.

“It was terrible,” said Lees. “When I heard about this one, I said, ‘Oh no, not another stupid anonymous letter.’ ”

Pols dismiss accusations

City Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Rosie Mendez, who were cc’d on the most recent anonymous letter attacking Sweeney and MacPherson, both said they put no stock in it and dismissed it out of hand. Also cc’d on the letter were the mayor, public advocate and state attorney general.

“As a general policy, I don’t give credence to anonymous letters lacking in hard facts,” said Gerson. “This letter was nothing other than general allegations and distortions of certain facts.”

Sweeney found it humorous that the letter accuses him of “advising” the chairperson of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 — whom the letter notes, is a member of his club, D.I.D. — that “any Fortune 500 company who want [sic] to build downtown must ‘donate’ to the community.” The letter then notes that C.B. 1 “asked Goldman Sachs for $1 million for their youth center, run by Bob Townley,” whom the letter notes, is a C.B. 1 member. “Is this not extortion?” the letter asks.

Sweeney says he never had any such conversation with any C.B. 1 chairperson, but he added sarcastically, “I am proud to shake down Goldman Sachs for $1 million to build a playground. If that’s the accusation, I’m proud of it. But it’s not even true.

“This is one of a long line of anonymous letters perpetrated by a certain clique in Community Board 2 who do not represent the residents or even the business community, but the nightlife and bars in the community,” Sweeney said. He expressed frustration at Derr’s giving the letter any credence.

“She’s the only one taking it seriously — did she write it?” he asked incredulously.

The letter didn’t name the C.B. 1 chairperson to whom it referred. But the current C.B. 1 chairperson, Julie Menin, and the previous one, Madelyn Wils, while both members of D.I.D., said they never had any such conversation with Sweeney. Both assured no C.B. 1 members were involved with the letter, despite its claim that C.B. 1 members were among its anonymous signers.

“A copy of the letter came to the board office,” said Menin. “I don’t believe it has any factual basis whatsoever.”

Said Wils, “During the time I was chairperson, we made many deals with many developers that wanted to build Downtown and it was always a public process. I would say if people aren’t willing to put their names on the letter, it’s very hard to take seriously.”

Townley, of Manhattan Youth, asked in exasperation why his organization was being dragged into what is clearly a case of Board 2 infighting.

Slugfest got ugly

Although the letter’s origins are a mystery, some public shots in Board 2’s feud were fired this winter, when MacPherson blasted Derr and Bob Rinaolo, the board’s secretary, in this winter’s issue of his Soho Journal. MacPherson penned a scathing article accusing Board 2’s leadership of telling residents to “get lost” while favoring bars and nightclubs. Meanwhile, among the snapshots of beautiful people and local V.I.P.’s on the magazine’s Downtown Celebrities page was Rinaolo, which a caption identified as “the power behind the throne at C.B. 2” — plus a drawing of a slug with the caption “Recent appointee by [former] Borough President Fields to C.B. 2.”

Rinaolo had planned to run for Board 2 chairperson last year and seemed to be a shoo-in, but reconsidered after negative publicity from Villager articles detailing how he hid a conflict of interest ruling from the board for 18 months while continuing to chair the board’s Business Committee, which considers liquor license applications.

MacPherson also ran for chairperson last year, motivated by his concern that the board’s Business Committee was packed with members favorable to the nightlife industry. But Rinaolo then picked Derr as his stand-in, and MacPherson eventually dropped out — some said because he lacked the votes, though he said it was to spend time with his new baby.

The anonymous letter charges MacPherson has a conflict of interest on C.B. 2 because two groups potentially with matters before the board — the Soho Arts Council and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation — advertise in Soho Journal. The Soho Arts Council, the letter notes, “works against the interests of several media companies and sign installers.”

‘Letter is illegal’

“This is an unsigned, untrue letter — which is illegal,” MacPherson retorted. He said he’s the head of the Soho Arts Council, so it’s perfectly justified for him to put an ad for his own group in his own magazine. And he said he gave G.V.S.H.P. a free ad because he supports the organization’s work. Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. director, confirmed the ad was free of charge.

MacPherson feels the attacks on him are a retaliation for his criticisms of the board leadership in his magazine.

“I guess the question is, why is the chairperson of the board defending an anonymous letter, which is the lowest form of character assassination — and which only a spineless individual would do?” MacPherson asked.

Rinaolo didn’t return a call for comment asking for his thoughts on the letter.

So far, the letter hasn’t had much impact other than to perturb Sweeney and MacPherson.

“It was two and a half months ago,” Sweeney noted last week. “They sent it to the Conflicts of Interest Board, Department of Investigation and [Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer — and nothing’s happened.”

Reform is real issue

Sweeney feels the letter was really a last-ditch attempt to stop Stringer from reforming the community boards, specifically Board 2. Ultimately, Stringer appointed 11 new members to C.B. 2, many of whom fall in the community activist mold — as opposed to under former Borough President Fields, who increased the number of bar and restaurant owners on the board.

Stringer has been reluctant to comment on the anonymous letter. Asked a few times about it last month, Stringer spokesperson Eric Pugatch said the borough president was just intently focusing on making all his appointments to the boards by April 1.

Apparently frustrated the letter wasn’t getting any traction with elected officials, COIB or D.O.I., its writer or writers pitched it to the New York Daily News’s Rush & Molloy, who ran an item about it in their gossip column, titled “A bar fight embroils downtown board.” If they knew the letter writer’s identity, Rush & Molloy didn’t divulge it.

Reck says it’s time to an end the anonymous letters and board function snubs, and that he’s running to refocus the community board on the issues.

“The board is not respected in the community anymore,” Reck said. “Community groups come to the board and they feel they’re not being respected.” As for what he feels is driving the divisions on the board, Reck said, it’s not even the battle over bars at this point.

“I think it has more to do with individual personalities, which is a shame,” he said. “We should be focusing on the issues — not who likes whom.”

Reck said, if elected, he also would reestablish a separate Waterfront Committee, rather than having a merged Waterfront and Parks Committee, as has existed since Derr took over the board. And he says the Business Committee definitely must be “balanced.”

“The community board should not be either pro- or anti-liquor licenses. It should be in the middle,” Reck said. “It’s been a long time since we were in the middle.”

Derr, however, says under her leadership C.B. 2 is doing well.

“The board is running very efficiently,” she said, adding this is despite the recent loss of District Manager Strickler. “We have come through controversy in the last year very smoothly and we’ve done it in a civil and intelligent manner. And I’m very proud of that and we’re a better board for it. And I look forward to serving the community for another year as chairperson.”

In response to Reck’s saying the board isn’t respected, Derr said, “I would disagree with that. There’s extensive, lively public sessions. Everyone gets to speak. We had hundreds of people turn out for public hearings on the Christopher St. Pier curfew and the Washington Square Park phase one renovation.”

Breaking tradition

The tradition at C.B. 2 is for the chairpersons to serve two years, then step down and let another chairperson serve two years; the unwritten rule has been that the incumbent chairperson is not challenged by an opponent for the election for the second year. Reck, though, is bucking that tradition.

Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2 first vice chairperson, who has run for chairperson in the past, said he’s not opposed to a contested race in June.

“Elections are a healthy way to address the direction of an organization,” he said. “David and Maria both have their strengths. David is one of the most hard-working, indefatigable, thorough members of the board. Maria has, I think, made strides over the last few months in demonstrating her independence. And I think she’s a good manager.”

At the same time, Hoylman noted, “This is a transition period of the board, with new members and a new borough president. The board has changed. I feel better about the composition of the board.”