The Villager doesn’t usually endorse in elections for community board chairperson. Each board’s officers aren’t elected by popular vote throughout their district — but by the 50 volunteer members that serve on the board.
However, in the case of Community Board 3, which covers the East Village and Lower East Side, we feel compelled to weigh in.
Indications are this will be a very close race. And there is a real difference between the two candidates. There is a lot at stake, namely, the future direction of the board and, thus, of the neighborhood.
Gigi Li, 32, who has served two one-year terms as chairperson, is running for re-election to a third term. Opposing her is Chad Marlow, 42, who has been on the board two years.
Almost all Manhattan community boards have term limits for chairpersons — ranging from two to four years. C.B. 3, though, is not one of them.
It’s been at least five years since this community board has seen a contested chairperson election. Yet, C.B. 3 has been roiled by problems for some while now, stretching back at least a year. Some, however, would say the board’s problems extend back even farther and are more deeply rooted.
The main flashpoint has been liquor-license applications. Things started to go off the rails when David McWater, a former C.B. 3 chairperson — and a bar owner — was videoed confronting a much smaller female activist last September in a heated exchange over a liquor-license vote.
Ten days later, as The Villager first reported, McWater decided to resign from C.B. 3. The Villager also reported then that McWater apparently was not living in New York City, but in New Jersey, making him ineligible to serve on the community board. Obviously, others at C.B. 3 had long known about this situation, but said nothing.
Very soon thereafter, LES Dwellers, the new community activist group that has been fighting the hardest — and most effectively — against bar oversaturation, specifically in the Lower East Side’s “Hell Square,” was “suspended” by Li — yet without the full board ever having taken a vote on the matter.
For three months, Dwellers members were not allowed to identify themselves as such when speaking at board meetings, and the Dwellers were removed from the board’s “referral list” of community groups given to liquor license applicants.
This highly undemocratic act was promptly and rightly rebuked by then-Borough President Scott Stringer — who appoints all community board members — in a letter to Li and C.B. 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer. Saying the suspension raised serious questions about “fairness” and “transparency,” Stringer asked Li to reconsider her action.
However, Li snubbed Stringer’s request, and the LES Dwellers’ suspension was not lifted.
Then, in January, there was an embarrassing procedural snafu on whether a vote should have been held on a street co-naming application for “Beastie Boys Square” at Rivington and Ludlow Sts.
More recently, Li has been accused of not promoting black and Latino board members to chairperson positions on board committees. Borough President Gale Brewer’s Office is investigating these charges, which were raised by C.B. 3 member Ayo Harrington.
In short, C.B. 3 is clearly in disarray, and there is a growing sense of disconnect with the community that it is supposed to serve.
There is a strong sentiment for change, both within the community and on C.B. 3. On the board, there is also a growing sense of rebellion.
In an interview with The Villager, Marlow, who previously served on the West Village’s Community Board 2 for three years, stressed that, if elected, job No. 1 for him would be better board management. When he was around 30, Marlow was president of the Village Independent Democrats for two years, so he knows how to run meetings — and with very opinionated members! Veterans of the famously progressively club say he did a good job, is extremely ethical, and that his heart is in the right place on social issues.
In short, Marlow told us, he would focus on running meetings more efficiently. He said, for example — giving one idea — he would buy cordless microphones so that members of both the public and the board could be better heard when speaking.
He said he would shift the board’s M.O. from “top-down” to “bottom-up,” and so would make it a priority to listen to other board members in terms of what areas they want to focus on. As for his own main concerns, they include transportation and safety issues; children’s issues; affordability and retail diversity; the increase in violent crime; and the need for “balance,” as in, the problem of the East Village and Lower East Side being a bar “party land.”
Though Marlow told us board management would be his top priority, we’re impressed by his record of accomplishment, and we feel, were he elected, he simply would — get things done, and that he would get the right things, positive things done. In short, he is more activist and energetic than Li, and that’s what we need.
It was Marlow who successfully spearheaded the effort for an Alphabet City / Tompkins Square Park “Slow Zone.” Featuring car-calming street speed bumps and signs with reduced speed limits, the Slow Zone is reportedly now set to be implemented in August.
As a Tompkins Square Playground parent with two young children, Marlow also waged an effective campaign to get the city to crack down on the park’s serious rat problem — a.k.a. “Ratpalooza” — several summers ago. It worked. The rodents’ numbers were reduced (and we all learned that rats hate mint-flavored garbage bags).
Also, last year, Marlow initiated a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $18,000 for the family of East Village florist Akkas Ali, 63, who was critically injured by a speeding, intoxicated driver and later died of his injuries. Marlow felt a connection since his own father was left brain-injured by a drunk driver and never fully recovered.
Marlow told us that he would also, if elected, make sure that committee assignments are more balanced across the board. Right now, some members serve on up to five committees, while others are only on one. Obviously, the current setup concentrates power among a smaller circle of board members, while disempowering other members.
Over all, Marlow would open up the board and make it more inclusive.
He said he would be happy to work with District Manager Stetzer, saying that, “When she’s at her best, she’s great.”
At the same time, if elected, Marlow would be more hands-on with the board’s staff. He would make sure that people are doing their jobs — but not overstepping their boundaries.
While Stetzer is a very hard worker, a strong chairperson, as Marlow would be, would complement her, and together they would make a good team. In the end, though, district managers are paid employees — they are not appointed board members. There is a difference. It is the chairperson who runs the board — or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
However, speaking about the current situation at C.B. 3, Marlow said, “I think it’s sometimes unclear who is chairing our board.”
Also, it’s important to have a chairperson who can represent the board in speaking to the press and getting the board’s message out. Too often C.B. 3 — in dealing with both the public and the press — displays a bunker mentality. A freer flow of information and dialogue is needed.
That said, we were disappointed that Li did not accept — or, much less, even respond to — The Villager’s offer to come in for an endorsement interview, to make the case for her re-election. Again, this points to a disconnect with the community. We also offered Li — or any of her supporters on the board — the chance to write a talking point in support of her candidacy. Again, nothing.
In short, we feel that while Li is certainly a good person, the board needs change. She has already had two years as chairperson. On many other boards, she’d be term-limited, Meanwhile, C.B. 3 has fallen into a rut, and the community has lost trust that their voices are being heard. And, in the case of the LES Dwellers, their voice was actually silenced by Li for a period of time. This is not community democracy the way it’s supposed to work.
The board needs change. Marlow would bring that. And we think, if he’s elected, the board would be energized, morale would rise, and the community would soon start to be re-engaged. Above all, we think things would get done, there would be positive results. Think, “Slow Zone” — that’s a very important accomplishment for the community. We’re sure that, if elected, there would be plenty more forward-thinking ideas like that from Marlow, and that he would be open to ideas, as well, from the public and board members.
Li has had her two years. She has had her chance. Now it’s time for someone else to take the reins. And, in this case, it’s someone with fire in his belly, who cares, who is extremely intelligent, and who would do the right thing. And it’s someone who would run the board with a strong hand — not in a “power-sharing” arrangement, as currently exists. Why must the chairperson “share power” with anyone?
C.B. 3 has lost the community’s confidence. It’s simply a fact. Re-electing Li, at this point, would not heal that divide. Change is needed. Marlow represents that change. A better functioning board is the first step, and Marlow would bring that.
For the good of the community board and of the neighborhood, we sincerely hope that Board 3 elects Chad Marlow its next chairperson on Tues., June 24. The community is watching — and hoping.