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March 16, 2013 By Steven E. Greer, MD
On many occasions over the last several months, both the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) and the Manhattan Community Board 1 (CB1), have made comments on websites and during board meetings stating that the public is not allowed to speak during the meetings, or that the press is not allowed to ask questions. For example, on January 24, 2013, the BPCA website announced a meeting and specifically stated “Meetings and committee meetings of the Battery Park City Authority and the Battery Park City Park Conservancy are open to the public for observation but not for direct participation. The press is welcome to attend the meetings.” As another example, on September 4, 2012, at the opening of a Battery Park City CB1 meeting, the leader proclaimed, “This is not a press conference…“. (Both examples were in response to BatteryPark.TV stories encouraging the public to attend and “speak up” about their concerns.)
These bold assertions seemed to be overreaches of authority gone unchallenged. Therefore, BatteryPark.TV submitted Freedom of Information (FOIL) requests to both the BPCA and CB1 requesting the list of laws or regulations that allowed them to stifle public comment, or forbid press questioning.
This month, both the BPCA and CB1 refused to comply with the FOIL requests, indicating that there indeed are no such laws empowering any city or state official to stifle public comment during New York City or New York State public meetings.
The CB1 office replied to the FOIL, “Your request for information does not constitute a request for records subject to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Therefore, FOIL does not require a response to your request. You may appeal denials of access in writing within 30 days to the Records Access.”
The BPCA replied, “The FOIL request you submitted on January 25, 2013 does not reasonably describe the records that you are seeking. Please clarify your requests in detail, and we will provide you with the records requested, if available.”
Both inadequate FOIL responses are being appealed.
As a result of our challenges to the tyrannical style of conducting pubic meetings, change at the BPCA and CB1 is already evident. During joint sessions of the CB1, Chairwoman Catherine McVay Hughes now allows the public time to speak in the opening. For the BPCA meetings, under the new leadership of Dennis Mehiel, the meetings are markedly more open than the ones conducted by Bill Thompson and Gayle Horwitz.
However, much more progress is needed. At the recent March 12th Tribeca CB1 meeting, which attracted nearly 100 members of the public to inadequately small CB1 offices, board leader Peter Braus cut off members of the public trying to ask questions or reply to statements. On one occasion, he yelled to a man in the overflow audience out in the hallway to, “Just go away…”. To Tribeca resident Amy Johannes, Mr. Braus interrupted her several times saying, “This is not a two-way dialogue…”
This type of overbearing board meeting leadership is unacceptable and illegal. It flies in the face of the spirit of the entire public meeting process. For future meetings that address vitally important matters, such as the NID tax, Pier 17 in the Seaport, or the fate of construction projects in Battery Park City, the public should stand up for their rights and speak their minds.
The CB1 and BPCA have gone unchallenged for decades. Times have changed.
Click here for the PDF of the CB1 reply to FOIL