Tense Meeting: CB5 Tables Resolution That Could Curtail Voting Rights of New Board Chair

A resolution, which will be considered again next month, would require “unregistered lobbyists” to recuse themselves from votes on matters related to their advocacy. New board chair Samir Lavingia has clearly made some enemies by doing advocacy work for the nonprofit Open New York. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine slammed the measure.

| 15 Apr 2024 | 01:41

Turmoil at Community Board 5 over Samir Lavingia acquiring the position of board chair continued on April 11, as board members considered a resolution that would curtail his ability to vote on certain topics.

The board ended up tabling a final vote on the matter until May, although not before a good deal of tension suffused the meeting. Indeed, Lavinigia himself suggested that the NYC Law Department had advised him that the resolution would be illegal.

Lavingia, who ended up as the surprise chairman last month, is a registered lobbyist for and employee of Open New York. Open New York is a nonprofit that advocates for a rapid scale-up of affordable housing development in NYC, which has rankled a number of staunch anti-development advocates involved with CB5.

Some, such as Layla Law-Gisiko–who was head of the board’s Land Use Committee, not to mention running for the position of vice-chair against Lavingia–resigned from the board after decrying his ascent to power. Only a month prior to that shake-up, then-vice-chair Nick Athanail was elevated to the board’s chair role, after longtime chair Vikki Barbero resigned. Yet after being on the job for only a month, Athanail resigned in protest when Lavingia landed his vacated chair.

With Athanail gone from the chair position, it meant that Lavingia was catapulted immediately into that top role. The move was in accordance with the CB5’s bylaws, but it seemed to catch some of the 40-odd members of the board by surprise.

CB5’s West Side purview stretches from 14th St. to 59th St., and includes neighborhood landmarks that are frequently caught up in development debates, such as Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Although community boards are deemed an advisory body, votes and resolutions are watched carefully by elected officials and the city Planning Department.

The debate over the board’s new composure continued during a three-hour emergency meeting on April 3, and spun back into view at the April 11 full board session, when the new resolution to curtail Lavingia’s voting rights was introduced. The measure is formally titled a “resolution to require Disclosure and Recusal.”

“More than one-third of Community Board 5, comprising a material and substantial portion of the Board, [have] expressed concerns about the real or potential influence by any group, whether a special interest or advocacy group[,] can influence members’ votes over the needs and voice of the community,” one notable subsection reads.

The resolution concludes that members of advocacy groups such as 501(c)4 organizations, or “unregistered lobbyists,” should be required to “recuse themselves from voting on any matter related to the advocacy’s group stated purpose.” In other words, board members such as Lavingia would be prevented from voting on matters such as housing.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine showed up at a “public hearing” portion of April 11’s meeting to address the resolution, which he pointedly called “the matter at hand here.”

”I am quite concerned on what this would mean for the functioning of the board. If you define ‘advocacy organization’ as a 501(c)4, then you’re including a wide, wide array of entities: NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Voters for Animal Rights, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, New York Immigration Coalition Action Fund. I can go on and on and on. There’s hundreds, of which many of you are probably members,” Levine said. “You can see where this leads, and how far it goes, and how many people would be caught up in it.”

He then appeared to mount a robust defense of people such as Lavingia: “I’m concerned if some of these affiliations, if forced to be made public, would be a very uncomfortable violation of privacy. Mostly I’m concerned that it would consume this board in endless adjudication. We want those debates to be respectful and professional, and to avoid ad hominem personal attacks.”

Eventually, the resolution itself came before the actual board. First, however, Lavingia seemed to acknowledge that it could be targeted at him by asking CB5 vice-chair Craig Slutzkin to oversee the discussion. “This would allow me to participate in the debate and answer questions from my personal perspective, which may be relevant to many of you,” he said.

Slutzkin went on to say that “people are very passionate” about the matter, and that he respected this. He then clarified that time was running short, and that speakers should be concise. This was then solidified by the motion to table the resolution, which would delay more substantial deliberation on the matter until May.

Joe Maffia then had a chance at the mic. He noted that Lavingia himself had consulted the NYC Law Department about the very “validity” of the resolution. Lavingia confirmed this, and said that he been told that the section of text that would force recusal was “not legal.” Specifically, he said he had been informed that it violated Chapter 68 of the New York City Charter, which governs conflict of interest. “More stringent [recusal] requirements” such as those in the resolution” would be in conflict with the charter, Lavingia said he had been told, and that this would not be “permissible.”

Todd Shapiro then said that he thought this was just an “opinion” from the Conflict of Interest Board and “not a definitive ruling about the legality of what we’re doing.”

“I urge everybody here to suspend their judgement, and should not consider that the final word. We should take the time that we have now to discuss the issues, and then we can table it and carry it over to the next meeting,” Shapiro added.

“This was a decision of the Law Department, not the conflict of interest board,” Lavingia shot back.

Ankur Dalal came down on the side of Levine, citing his belief that the “breadth of the disclosure and recusal resolution is astonishingly broad, and would hit a very wide range of organizations.”

John B. Harris Jr. said that he wanted the legal advice Lavingia had received to be presented to the entire board, in writing if possible. “The oral summary is typically insufficient,” Harris Jr. said. Todd Shapiro agreed.

Finally, the motion to table the resolution came up for a vote, which passed. Lavingia abstained, and the fate of his CB5 voting rights–and the voting rights of those akin to him–were deferred to another meeting.