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CBN, CB reps slam AY hearing oversight; ESDC mostly shrugs

No crowd control. Atlantic Yards supporters allowed to cut the line. Failure to allow those waiting to enter the hearing room in a timely manner. Verbal abuse and racially inflammatory references.

Those are some of the charges in a blistering letter sent Thursday by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), complaining about how the agency "planned and executed" the Aug. 23 public hearing on the Atlantic Yards project, held at the Klitgord Auditorium of NYC Technical College.

Some of those complaints are repeated in letters to the agency from Community Board 2 chair Shirley McRae and Joanne Simon, district leader for the 52nd Assembly District.

The agency's response to the CBN letter and to some questions I sent about the fairness of the process--and asking whether it would be different at the upcoming community forums on Sept. 12 and Sept. 18--was brief. It didn't address whether the mike would be turned off after three minutes, as was done infrequently--I clocked project supporter the Rev. Herbert Daughtry at 5:45, albeit with delays for cheers--or whether there would be stricter controls on heckling.

Spokeswoman Jessica Copen emailed me:
At the public hearing on Aug. 24, ESDC followed our practices and policies regarding hearings. We intend to conduct the forums similarly. We hope that the attendees at the upcoming forums will respect all the speakers so that we can conduct the forums efficiently and maximize the number of speakers in the time available.

That hardly responds to the issues. (Also, it was Aug. 23.) The agency did send an extensive reply to McRae that partly responded to the letter but evaded a crucial issue, as ESDC took no responsibility for the management of the outside line.

CBN's charges

CBN's letter began by noting that the ESDC, before the hearing, would not even provide information on how hearing procedures would be conducted, instead choosing to treat "CBN’s offer of assistance as a Freedom of Information request," which has not yet been provided. CBN collected the names of more than 300 people who never made it into the auditorium.

(CBN, focused on public education and response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is officially neutral on the project, but many of its constituent groups oppose Atlantic Yards.)

The letter from co-chairs Candace Carponter and Therese Urban states:
Unfortunately, even getting on line early did not guarantee members of the community at large admission to the hearing. We can obtain affidavits from at least two individuals - one an AP reporter, and both who were near the front of the line - attesting that the hall was half-filled when the doors were finally opened at approximately 4:10 p.m.
In addition, the individuals manning the doors, who were variously described as being employees of the ESDC, the developer Forest City Ratner Companies, members of the New York City Police Department, and the security and/or management of the building, routinely allowed union members, members of BUILD (an organization funded largely by the Developer), and members of other organizations supporting the project to enter through a side entrance designated for press and electeds.
When representatives of CBN and a member of Community Board 2 challenged those manning the doors, they were told that the individuals being admitted were either members of the press or were carrying speeches for elected officials, even though these admissions were witnessed at approximately 7:30 p.m., long after the electeds had completed their speeches. In order to prevent continued unfairness, the Community Board 2 member stationed himself at the side entrance for more than two hours.
Chaos ensued in the front of the lines outside as well. We have witnesses who can attest that busloads of children were unloaded and ushered to the head of the line; that gatekeepers allowed people wearing stickers and carrying signs in favor of the project to join others already at the front of the line while unaffiliated attendees were directed to the rear; and that members of the Carpenters’ Union were permitted to open the police barricades and crowd into the front of the line before the doors opened.

Hearing tone

The letter challenges ESDC procedures:
In addition to failing to guarantee fair and impartial access to the hearing, the ESDC also did nothing to prevent the hearing from quickly developing an acrimonious tone, and in some instances, took action that only served to inflame the already heated emotions of the hearing’s participants.

By shuffling the cards, and attempting to balance pro and con speakers, that meant that many later-arriving people were called to testify before others who'd been on line all day. Moreover, CBN said, that process "overtly encouraged the public" to argue for or against the project, "rather than to respond to the substantive issues raised by the DEIS and the GPP."

The letter charged:
However, rather than quelling the vitriolic rants of several ”supporters” of the project, the Hearing Officer appeared cowed by the inappropriate behavior, and permitted outright threats to go unchallenged; in fact, the most vocal “supporters” were allowed to remain at the microphone for more than the three-minute limit. (CBN can provide affidavits to support this abuse.) Grossly inappropriate and threatening comments were permitted at the microphone, among them this quote from a Community Benefits Agreement participant and one of the founders of BUILD, in describing the possible reactions of ex-convicts with whom he works, “So you better hope this project goes through or else you'll be the victim. If this project doesn't happen, I guarantee you: You will have chaos in this community."
Much inappropriate behavior also came from individuals not at the microphone. Some of the comments from the audience that were allowed to continue, unchecked, were: "No jobs means we WILL ROB!” and “You can say what you want, but we’ll be waiting for you outside when this is over."

Racially inflammatory, certainly, but "racist references," as the letter states? Some project supporters may seize on this distinction. (Let's note that racially-charged rhetoric has come from both sides in this debate, such as ACORN's Bertha Lewis, BUILD's James Caldwell, community activist (and DDDB advisory board member) Bob Law, and DDDB's Daniel Goldstein.)

CBN's requests

CBN asked for "a formal investigation into the manner in which this particular public hearing was conducted" and that no additional hearings or forums be held unless "appropriate controls for the method of conduct of the hearing and audience behavior are put in place."

McRae's letter

McRae wrote to the ESDC on 8/28/06:
I personally observed...gatekeepers allowing people wearing stickers and carrying signs in favor of the project to join others already at the front of the line while unaffiliated attendees were directed to the rear.
Supporters of the project continued to receive preferential treatment after the doors opened. A member of Community Board 2 informed me that two gentlemen wearing badges indicating an affiliation with Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), one of the signatories of the benefits agreement signed with the developer, stood at the front doors and allowed some individuals to bypass the line.

She pointed out that the time available for substantial comment on the issues was reduced by the number of speakers who repeated boilerplate support for the project, and that people who arrived early in the day did not see their names called in order. She pointed out that members of the community board worked hard to prepare for the hearing:
Of the twelve people associated with Community Board 2 that signed up to speak, only four were able to that evening. Seven speakers were not called and one was called but had already left due to childcare responsibilities.

ESDC's response

Rachel Shatz, Director of Planning and Environmental Review, responded to McRae 8/31/06, explaining that the agency:
--hired 10 security guards to maintain order
--no one besides specific individuals "was sanctioned by ESDC to be allowed to bypass the line"
--given the predominance of pro-project speakers at the head of the line, ESDC attempted to provide balance by reordering the speaker cards
--written testimony has the same weight as oral testimony.

As to Shatz's point about balancing the order of speakers, it did help project opponents in some ways. For example, photographer Jonathan Barkey, who offered dramatic testimony accompanied by his renderings of the project, arrived at 4 pm, as I've been told, but was called within the first group from the public.

Shatz, however, punted on a key issue:
The ESDC staff members working at the hearing were occupied with signing in the speakers, manning the materials inspection desk, providing project materials, running speaker cards to the hearing officer and listening to the public presentations. It was not appropriate to assign them to sidewalk control, since steps had been taken to provide security and police oversight in that area.

Three minutes?

Since McRae didn't raise it, Shatz didn't address the conduct of the hearing officer and his unwillingness to hold people to the three-minute limit.

That issue came up in Simon's 8/25/06 formal complaint to the agency:
While generally respectful of witnesses [hearing officer Edward] Kramer had a heavy hand on the time clock for those who were testifying about environmental impacts, allowing project supporters to preach and scold well beyond the 3-minute limit... Had such testimony been remotely on topic, I might be less offended, although it still would have been unfair.
Every person testifying at the Aug. 23 hearing supported affordable housing and jobs. Those who testified on point however, supported the creation of affordable housing and jobs in a healthy and safe manner, something the GPP [General Project Plan] (as acknowledged by ESD) does not provide.