Examining Gigi Li’s Community Board 3 Reign of Shame [OP-ED]

Posted on: July 2nd, 2015 at 5:00 am by
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This is the second installment of a two-part editorial written by Erin Harvey.

The last-minute decision to throw Gigi Li in the race to unseat Jenifer Rajkumar as District Leader reeks of Sheldon Silver’s desperation and Councilwoman Chin’s petty vindictiveness. Should Gigi Li somehow pull off a victory for the unpaid position, it would come at a great cost to a community already suffering from a devastating strain of corruption. As she enters her fourth consecutive term as leader of Community Board 3, the Chair carries with her the stigma of capitulating to District Manager Susan Stetzer and running the board for the benefit of a small, embedded elite with little to no democratic accountability or oversight.

Ms. Li’s inability to accept a political reality that is at odds with the status quo has landed her in messy local scandals and the subject of public ridicule for her many botched decisions.

In the infamous taped conversation where she, along with Stetzer, suspended the community organization, LES Dwellers, from participating in the community board process, she does so, astoundingly, on the grounds that free speech is a “gray area.” This aggressive act of censorship, sanctioned unilaterally by Ms. Li, demonstrated her failure to recognize that free speech and the unfettered right to dissent are the bedrock of American democracy. Couldn’t Ms. Li understand that a Community Board which muzzles the voice of the COMMUNITY is a contradiction in terms? For the latter reason, it’s understandable that her actions required the intervention of then-borough president Scott Stringer and his legal team, reprimanding her for a decision that was not in the spirit of democracy or public service and thus needed to be reversed.

Sub-standard, compromised governance would rear its head too often during Ms. Li’s tenure. There was the well-publicized debacle of “Beastie Boys Square” where she brought a vote to the floor that was rejected without due process or public input. This decision again required the Manhattan Borough President’s office, now under Gale Brewer, to intervene due to Ms. Li’s abrogation of her duty to function as a fair, unbiased leader.

What could have been her referendum on institutionalized racism and a watershed moment for equality, instead simply evaporated into nothing. Ms. Li was unable, or unwilling, to recognize that racial bias had been deeply woven into the fabric of CB3’s governing structure.

It took the courageous voice of member Ayo Harrington, to expose the fact that in two years under Li’s leadership, not a single African-American or Latino board member was appointed to chair or co-chair a committee or task force. She also noted the opaque and often bogus criteria Ms. Li employed to fill leadership positions that allowed the same handful of people to hold these positions ad nauseum. This back-room exclusionary practice has caused CB3 to suffocate under its own entrenchment.

Unfortunately, Ms Li has demonstrated that she’s comfortable with allowing past injustices to continue to shape the future of CB3. She was handed the opportunity to attack structural inequalities along racial lines, but she decided to look away ignoring these stark inequities in her midst.

An investigation into the matter was conducted by the city’s district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ultimately (in a heavily redacted report), Ms. Li skirted penalty for having practiced racial bias at CB3 on a technicality. MBP Brewer found that her chairmanship had been too brief to prove racially-based misconduct. However, the report did not deny that minorities had been excluded from leadership roles.

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Ayo Harrington in response to not being reappointed, Photo: LoDown

Ms. Harrington’s decision to address the embedded racial bias at CB3 ultimately resulted in the loss of her membership — an act that was purely punitive in nature and amounted to a substantial loss to our community. Sadly, another reminder that Ms. Li is simply a lesson in disappointment.

Ms. Li proudly proclaims her crowning achievement is her role in negotiating the current plan for Essex Crossing after decades of failed campaigns to develop the city-owned parcels (SPURA). The truth is she only negotiated what Silver engineered and sanctioned. This after he purposefully manipulated any development for nearly 50 years in order to prop up his power base at the expense of hundreds of middle-class and low-income families. With the multimillion-dollar project currently under construction, the final plan yields far too little housing and only burned rubber from the Warhol Museum that fled just after Silver’s arrest; meaning the promise of a cultural anchor may now evaporate.

Ms. Li simply served as the surrogate of a flawed, Silver-tainted mega-development — one that was hours away from being gifted to Forest City Ratner and the company’s VP Michael Rapfogel. Just as the Economic Development Corporation was about to award the bid to Forest City Ratner, Rapfogel’s disgraced father and longtime Silver crony William Rapfogel was placed in handcuffs for embezzling millions of dollars from the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

What Ms. Li views a success is nothing more than a lucrative package given to a team of politically connected developers at the behest of Silver. The winning team which replaced Forest City has links to the ultra right-wing Koch Brothers and the powerful lobbyist, Mercury Public Affairs LLC, the firm that lobbied on behalf of BFC Partners and L+M Development on the deal to purchase a 50% stake of Section VIII NYCHA units.

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