Monday, February 09, 2015

Revealed: AY CDC board members include two CBA partners (conflict?); new director has local experience (but not in real estate)

Also see coverage of the AY CDC meeting and the plans and prospects for the B1 tower at the arena plaza.

Only when entering the long-delayed inaugural meeting Friday were the board members, officers, and executive director of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation revealed, in board documents.

Even if the delay was partly because of the time to name people--one of nine gubernatorial appointments remains unfulfilled--it was not exactly a transparent process.

I have to think one reason was to avoid pushback over the appointment of two clear project boosters--Bertha Lewis and Sharon Daughtry, two Forest City Ratner Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) partners--in this advisory/oversight role, which seems to strain if not violate conflict of interest provisions.

Another might be to avoid mention of the appointment of an AY CDC executive director who does not have--as purportedly required--experience overseeing real estate development projects.

(The AY CDC officers are all staffers at Empire State Development, the state agency of which the AY CDC is a subsidiary, including Marion Phillips III, president, and Joe Chan, vice-president. Chan is also on the board. The body was established to add some measure of accountability as part of a settlement of a potential lawsuit that led to a new timetable of 2025 for the affordable housing.)

At left center, in tie; Marion Phillips III, president of AY CDC. To his left are ESD staffers Robin Stout and Sam Filler. To Filler's left is Tobi Jaiyesimi. At near side of table, backs to camera are Kieran Harrington, Tamara McCaw, Bertha Lewis
In general, while most of the appointees live in Brooklyn, and most live or work relatively close to the project site, few have been deeply involved in Atlantic Yards issues, and it's an open question as to how closely they will pay attention. Only three board members asked questions during Friday's meeting.

While there was no counterbalancing appointment of a board member with a clearly critical eye on Atlantic Yards, Mayor Bill de Blasio, to the surprise of some, assigned his one appointment to a nominee pushed by the project's nearest neighbors, the Dean Street Block Association: Jaime Stein, a Pratt Institute academic with experience in working with government agencies and monitoring projects.

The board appointees

The gubernatorial appointees (with one still to come) include:
  • Kenneth Adams, ESD Chairman, who lives in Boerum Hill, is moving to a new state job and presumably will be replaced by his successor, Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky
  • Julene Beckford, a former (?) attorney for the City Council, who recently became a mom and was not present at the meeting
  • Liz Harris, state assistant secretary for food and agriculture, lives in Fort Greene
  • Rachel Gold, special counsel and Deputy Commissioner of Labor, former president of DUMBO Neighborhood Association, lives in Carroll Gardens
  • Joseph Chan, ESD executive VP for real estate portfolio and  public-private partnerships, former director of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, lives in Prospect Heights
  • Shawn V. Austin,  senior VP of Liberty Mutual responsible for marketing, lives in Prospect Lefferts Manor (his wife Jennifer Jones Austin co-chaired Mayor de Blasio's transition team)
  • Sharon Daughtry, executive director of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, which manages the distribution of free tickets to Barclays Center events, as well as a new foundation funded by the developer, among other programs
  • Tamara McCaw, director of governmental and community affairs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), lives in Clinton Hill. Also has been involved in Community Board 2, the Pratt Area Community Council, and the FAB Alliance
Note that BAM was formerly chaired by Bruce Ratner, and the four Cuomo staffers. Not appointed were some recommended nominees including Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee (who negotiated the agreement that led to the governance body), Michael Cairl (a project manager who formerly headed the Park Slope Civic Council, part of BrooklynSpeaks), and Stuart Pertz (an architect who advised BrooklynSpeaks).

The other appointees include:
  • Monsignor Kieran Harrington, Rector of the Co-Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Prospect Heights and Vicar for Communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn (appointee of the Senate President)
  • Barika Williams, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, a Prospect Heights resident (appointee of the City Council Speaker, presumably at the recommendation of Council Member Laurie Cumbo)
  • Jaime Stein, who chairs Pratt's graduate program in sustainability (mayoral appointee)
  • Linda Reardon, a civil engineer "working in the public realm" on infrastructure issues and Prospect Heights resident (appointed by the Assembly Speaker, presumably at the recommendation of Assemblyman Walter Mosley)
  • Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, a Flatbush resident, a confidant of de Blasio, and CBA signatory as head of New York ACORN (appointed by Borough President Eric Adams)
Only three board members had questions: Lewis asked about board operations, including recruitment of MWBEs; Williams asked Forest City's MaryAnne Gilmartin about the income levels of the affordable units; and Stein asked about getting a log of Quality of Life complaints be forwarded to the board.

The CBA connection, and potential conflicts

The AY CDC's role; click to enlarge
Lewis rather matter-of-factly said she was a member of the project CBA while Daughtry, in a stage announcer voice, declared she was "a proud member of the Community Benefits Agreement signed in 2005. We are partners with Forest City Ratner."

Is that a conflict?

I asked ESD attorney Robin Stout, noting that Daughtry's organization is funded mostly by Forest City Ratner.

(Also, when national ACORN declared bankruptcy, Forest City was its biggest creditor, after Lewis negotiated a bailout that included a grant and a loan.)

"Purely as a hypothetical, if one of the elected officials decided to appoint someone from Forest City Ratner or [new partner] Greenland to the board, I'm not sure that that would constitute a conflict," Stout said. "Certainly they're [the CBA signatories] well removed from that." (Yes, I taped the interview.)

That surprised me, especially after I was reminded that the board is supposed to advise on ways to "improve and expedite developer responsiveness.

I asked about the boundary. "If you have a conflict of interest under the law, it's something that would taint your judgments," he said.

Stout pointed me to the Public Officers Law. It struck me as raising a red flag. Here's an excerpt from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics regarding that law, which includes boards of any public authority corporation, which would encompass AY CDC:
No officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur any obligation of any nature, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.
... An officer or employee of a state agency, member of the legislature or legislative employee should not by his conduct give reasonable basis for the impression that any person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties
How can representatives of organizations financially dependent on (or partners with) the developer can avoid conflicts? Can they be ameliorated simply by periodic recusals? I have my doubts.

Stout not unreasonably pointed out that "one of the reasons for having a big board is they can focus on different things."

Indeed, it would be understandable to have a spectrum of people, including potentially CBA signatories like Daughtry and Lewis, in the Stakeholder Council originally contemplated as informing a new governance structure. But that's not the same as the membership of the subsidiary assigned to monitor the project. 

The AY CDC director

The AY CDC director is Tobi Jaiyesimi, a former chief of staff for Assemblyman Walter Mosley and a former staffer for his predecessor, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. She has a political science degree from Hunter College (2009) and described herself as a "former graduate student in urban affairs.

As I wrote in November, the promised pay, from $70,000 to $75,000 annually, was approximately the previous salary for the manager of community government relations post, and below the salary for the in-house Project Director.

That made it unlikely they'd find someone with the  required experience of "5+ years as a Project Manager for large real estate development projects working with government entities and private developers. Prior experience with site construction, architectural/design issues, and/or community outreach required."

Phillips explained that the applicants were "either very strong on the community side or on the construction side," but not both. Jaiyesimi offered knowledge of the project and familiarity with elected officials and community interaction, he said.

Was it set up to fall short? Well, a larger salary might have generated candidates who could offer all the purportedly required experience.

It's obviously too soon to assess Jaiyesimi's work, and her experience may serve her well. Still, I'd bet that Forest City Ratner is pleased that the person running the AY CDC is not steeped in real estate and construction issues.

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