Bronx Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler said he’ll recuse himself from chairing the committee during Tishman Speyer’s presentation later this month on the affordable housing project planned for 160 Van Cortlandt Park S.
“I have no obligation to turn over the chair, but I will anyway,” he told The Riverdale Press. “I am a nervous Nellie.”
“However, I’m clearly not barred from sharing my opinion, which I plan to do.”
Bronx Community Board 8’s law, rules & ethics committee arrived at an awkward impasse last month on the unresolved subject of the land use committee chair’s possible conflict of interest discussing the development in CB8 meetings while also serving on the New York City Housing Development Corp.’s board.
Tishman Speyer recently agreed to appear at the committee’s March 23 meeting. The firm’s monthslong absence had been a bone of contention among land use members.
The Rockefeller real estate firm’s arrival in Kingsbridge poses a novel situation for CB8, not least because the 340-unit development is a candidate for bond financing from the New York City Housing Development Corp., where Moerdler has served as a gubernatorial appointee to the board of directors for more than two decades.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before, or I certainly haven’t,” said law, rules & ethics committee member Dan Padernacht during their Feb. 13 meeting.
Moerdler’s HDC appointment is an uncompensated position and would seem an unlikely source of leverage in anything nefarious to do with his tenure as CB8’s land use chair.
Law, rules & ethics committee members were not on the same page. Nor were they particularly comfortable talking about Moerdler’s recusal before he made his decision Tuesday.
“I do not like to discuss an item in any detail if there’s a question with regards to the Conflicts of Interest Board, and I don’t think we should make any statement,” said committee chair Marty Wolpoff.
“I don’t want to get my feet into this,” he said.
Wolpoff said he thought the land use chair “responded very well” to concerns members of the public raised in the committee’s Feb. 6 meeting. He told the committee he believed Moerdler received clearance for his dual role from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board — the independent agency that administers and enforces the city’s conflicts of interest law.
But through a public records request, The Riverdale Press learned that board does not possess a waiver for Moerdler on this topic. Whether or not he has requested one is confidential, the agency said.
The COIB provided a copy of one waiver Moerdler received in 2006 — apparently the only one he’s been granted. It describes the COIB’s determination permitting him to serve as a member of HDC provided he recuse himself from matters involving a candidate for tax-exempt financing and mezzanine financing from a lender represented by Moerdler’s law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. At the time, HDC was embarking on financing the first wave of residential towers that rose on the Williamsburg waterfront after the 2005 rezoning championed by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
The document is an example of the type of waiver COIB occasionally grants in particular circumstances where a public servant’s position puts them in violation of the board’s rules but does not conflict with the interests of the city.
The board’s correspondence with the city’s public servants is otherwise shielded from public scrutiny.
It isn’t clear how Wolpoff arrived at the misapprehension of Moerdler’s “clearance” he stated in the law, rules & ethics meeting. He said Moerdler has recently sought to delegate his duties to another board member, having approached several CB8 members without success. He’s seeking a substitute to take over as land use chair during discussions of the Tishman Speyer development, Wolpoff said.
CB8 member Camelia Tepelus said she was less concerned about Moerdler’s ability to navigate the current situation than the impact it’s having on the land use committee and the community board as a whole.
“It’s very uncomfortable to be accused that you’re biased, or that due to an affiliation, you’re not treating an issue like you would treat any other issue,” she said.
Public servants in New York City are prohibited from using their positions for personal gain. The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board lays out the rules and enforces them, with specific codes of conduct for the volunteer members of the city’s 59 community boards.
The rules address conflicts that may arise from the competing interests of other government entities community board members serve, whether paid or unpaid.
In such cases, an important question is whether the community board member is acting to benefit the community or the other agency, a COIB staff member told The Press in a phone call last week.
She said most cases the board reviews are very “fact specific” and refrained from opining on a real situation at any length.
“Community board members are, by definition, interested in the community. There’s not a desire to exclude too many people,” she said.
But when it comes to community board members who also serve another government agency, an important question is whether they’re acting to benefit the other agency, she said.
Furthermore, the question of which agency an unpaid public servant serves can be somewhat complicated since, in some cases, they are considered to serve the agency employing the official that appoints them. For instance, that could be the mayor or governor’s office.
The way Moerdler sees it: “We do not review applications from HDC.”
He pointed out that CB8’s jurisdiction over the Tishman Speyer development does directly extend to any of HDC’s responsibilities as a municipal housing finance agency.
“HDC doesn’t look at a property as to whether it’s a good site or bad site. It looks at financial information,” he said.
Moerdler said he hopes his decision to recuse will end the land use committee’s digression into COIB questions.
Law, rules & ethics committee member Rosemary Ginty did not seem to think the end was in sight on any of the lingering questions. But the community board needed to find a resolution, she said.
“If something is going before the COIB, somebody has to bring it, and that’s perfectly fine,” Ginty said.
“In the absence of that, seems to me the chair of the board has to settle this issue, has to bring to conclusion to what’s been in The Riverdale Press, what has been on the committee, what has been talked about. It has to come to an end.”
<it>Abigail Nehring is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.<it>