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So, was Jo Anne Simon an “early vocal opponent" of eminent domain for AY? Yes, but it's complicated

So, did Jo Anne Simon, the 52nd District Leader, civil rights attorney, and fundraising leader in the race for the 33rd District Council seat, say that she was an “early vocal opponent of the use of eminent domain” at the debate on Tuesday, as noted by her anonymous critics on the Real Reform Brooklyn blog?

The answer, as far as I can tell:
  • she said something at least pretty close
  • she did announce opposition to eminent domain early on
  • she has been less vocal than leaders of the AY opposition regarding eminent domain
Simon is not the most anti-Atlantic Yards candidate for the seat--Ken Baer and Ken Diamondstone are longstanding opponents standing with Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), and Doug Biviano and Evan Thies are making AY an issue--though she's far more critical and knowledgeable than the current officeholder, David Yassky. She also has endorsements from and ties to various Brooklyn political figures.

The question for voters seeking reform is whether the most important issue is the first order of reform--a candidate other than Stephen Levin, who's tied to Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez--or the second order of reform, the most "reformist" of the rest of the pool. (Here are some comments about reform on the Brooklyn Heights Blog.)

And, of course, the candidates' temperament and experience should be factors, along with their political stances.

Checking on the quote

I wasn't there to hear the quote, so I checked with Simon's campaign. "I cannot confirm the exact wording of what Jo Anne had said. She did attest that she had publicly opposed the use of eminent domain early on," responded campaign manager Kelly Donnelly. "As I remember it, I believe she was rebutting to an attack that she had never done so."

Indeed, though Simon has been most closely identified with BrooklynSpeaks and its “mend-it-don’t-end-it” stance on Atlantic Yards, which explicitly steered clear of litigation, the Boerum Hill Association, whose Atlantic Yards task force Simon headed, issued a February 2004 press release in which the organization opposed the project based on several factors, including scale, failure to account for infrastructure costs, public financing, and eminent domain.

"As Chair of the Atlantic Yards Task Force for the Boerum Hill Association, Jo Anne led the group effort as they conducted extensive research on the proposal, coordinated outreach and educated members of the community about the proposal, and crafted one of the very first thorough and exhaustive assessments of the proposal," Donnelly said.

When BrooklynSpeaks was formed in 2006, I noted that the BHA had recently reiterated its opposition to eminent domain.

ESDC testimony/letter

As noted on the Real Reform blog, Simon's 8/23/06 testimony to the Empire State Development Corporation on the project didn't mention eminent domain. Then again, like many others in organizations that split up their testimony for the purposes of the public hearing, she was explicitly testifying on issues in the environmental impact statement such as traffic.

Simon's post-hearing letter to then-ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano was a necessary critique of the circus-like atmosphere--one the ESDC never fully addressed.

Eminent domain litigation

By becoming a prominent member of BrooklynSpeaks, Simon essentially muted opposition to eminent domain while pushing for reforms like a new governance structure.

As I wrote in December 2007, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and allies in BrooklynSpeaks had a legitimate role in steering clear of the lawsuits challenging the project; that allowed them to offer constructive criticism if the project proceeded, while groups opposing Atlantic Yards in court wouldn't get much, if any, attention from Forest City Ratner and the ESDC.

In the past year or so, and especially recent months, members of BrooklynSpeaks have become more critical of the project and the process, and so has Simon.

Simon's a civil rights lawyer, not a land-use lawyer, so it's not surprising she didn't participate in the DDDB-organized eminent domain lawsuits.

But she didn't stand with DDDB when it announced its first lawsuit in 2006, and she hasn't been a presence--as far as I remember--at any of the court arguments. There's a reason for that; she's been working most closely with BrooklynSpeaks.

Looking for the nuance

So Simon was an "early vocal opponent of eminent domain." She may have been a consistent opponent of eminent domain. (In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, she says "obviously the use of eminent domain for private enrichment is very, very bad public policy.")

But--if we're looking for nuance--she hasn't been a consistently leading or prominent opponent of eminent domain. It's not the dominant issue in the race, but Simon can and should explain why.


  1. Norman:

    Very nuances analysis. But she is a civil rights lawyer. And, last time I checked, eminent domain was a constitutional issue. In fact, perhaps the most prominent civil rights law firm, Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady, is lead counsel on the eminent domain litigations for DDDB. How is that Simon, a civil rights lawyer as well, does not join the fray on the community's behalf?

    Real Reform Brooklyn

  2. Sorry antivito, while I appreciate your blog, I think this is unfair.

    While I don't agree with BrooklynSpeaks' "mend it don't end it approach" (obviously, and that approach, as Norman writes, is now much closer to end it, anyway) I think JoAnne has been a valuable voice in the Atlantic Yards struggle.

    It is true that Ken Diamondstone and Ken Baer have stood with DDDB and have been VERY supportive and active in our work from the very beginning. We at DDDB are deeply appreciative of that. We know exactly where they stand on the project and on the issue of eminent domain for the project.

    But why should JoAnne be expected to join our eminent domain legal activity? We never even asked her to. Sure she could have joined our volunteer legal team, but there are scores of lawyer/politicians out there who didn't either. I don't discount their sincerity because of that.

    Also, remember, JoAnne has been an elected official and a practicing attorney, which leaves her little time to give us legal representation, and as an elected official I'm not sure it would have even been right or desireable to have her working on our suit. Had we asked her for advice on our case, I'm sure she would have given it. But we have top notch attorneys devoted to the case and didn't need such advice.

    My criticism would be about BrooklynSpeaks' (as a coalition) lack of a clear position on eminent domain specifically for the Atlantic Yards project (which is a position itself), and the times JoAnne has kept silent on the issue as a representative of that coalition. So I wish JoAnne had been more outspoken on eminent domain specifically; I wish the same about nearly every other candidate or office holder.

    While I would not object to fair criticism of any politician, including JoAnne, I think this line if criticism is really a non issue.

    But please do keep up the vigilance on all the politicians and holding their feet to the fire.


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