Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist

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This is the final edition of Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist. Many thanks to its loyal readers of the past three years. To contact me at Crain’s New York Business, where I report on politics and government and contribute to The Insider, call 212-210-0745 or e-mail eengquist@crain.com.

May 30, 2005  

 

      

            DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPA: On October 14, 2004, at a Borough Hall ceremony marking Hispanic Heritage Month, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez honored the Hispanic Young People’s Alternative (HYPA), a Sunset Park non-profit of which Gonzalez was executive director immediately prior to joining the City Council.

            It made for a nice show, but in reality HYPA was in disarray, a shell of its former self. Its roster of programs and funding sources had withered to just one—an after-school “beacon” program—and only a few dozen kids were showing up for that each day. The city Department of Youth and Community Development, which wanted it to serve at least 100 kids daily, gave the flagging program a “needs improvement” rating.

            We’re told the agency also investigated HYPA board members for their ties to Gonzalez, who allocated public funding to the organization. DYCD contended the board members had a conflict of interest that they needed to resolve.

            Well, they resolved it—by abandoning the two-decade-old organization and leaving it to die.

            And die it will: DYCD declined to renew HYPA’s contract to run the beacon program, which expires June 30. Since that’s HYPA’s only remaining cash source, as of July 1 the organization will cease to exist. Another non-profit, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, sponsored by St. Christopher-Ottile Children’s Services, will take over the beacon program and try to revive it.

            When we asked Gonzalez if she accepts any responsibility for HYPA’s demise, she replied emphatically, “Absolutely not”—despite her close ties to the organization and its board members. We’re told no HYPA executive director got hired without the councilwoman’s say-so, which she denies.

            Whatever the case, HYPA’s board members couldn’t find or keep a competent person in charge. After Gonzalez left, a close acquaintance of hers got the job, but he quit two summers ago. A woman was hired to replace him, but the board was unsatisfied with her performance and pushed her out in May 2004. A third executive director was hired in September but he quit in December when the board wouldn’t let him fire an employee.

            The board had a grant writer who didn’t write any grant applications, sources said. The board also failed to do any fundraising, leaving HYPA totally dependent on the government.

            Yet Gonzalez told us, “I know the board did the best it could.”

            But the only board member who’s done anything in recent months is Osman David, who spends lonely hours in HYPA’s office (an apartment it rents at 48th Street and 4th Avenue) trying to make sure HYPA’s debts are retired and its 15 or so employees get paid through June.

            David told us HYPA used to get funding from the United Way and other sources, but “within a span of about five years, it was all lost and there was no real effort to look for other funding. For the last three years HYPA has been dependent on the beacon program and funding from the councilwoman’s office. You can’t run an organization like that.”

***

            The following item was originally slated for the Feb. 16, 2004, edition of Brooklyn Politics. It was never published, purportedly because the source of the information about the alma mater of State Senator Carl Kruger was anonymous. I later was able to attribute the information to a named source—Kruger himself, according to a questionnaire he completed for Citizens Union in 2000—but I made no further attempt to get Courier-Life to publish the item (believing I would be wasting my time).

            An amended version of the item—without any mention of Kruger—was allowed to run in the Courier-Life papers, even though it stemmed from the same anonymous source.

           

            HATE MAIL BLASTS POLS: A carefully crafted piece of anonymous literature blasting three southern Brooklyn politicians was mailed last week to Democratic Party insiders across the borough.

            The flier blasts State Senator Carl Kruger and Councilmen Domenic Recchia and Mike Nelson as “Democratic sellouts” who “have been identified as contributing to the detriment of our party.”

            While “contributing to the detriment” is horrendous English, the flier otherwise appears professional, indicating that its author is experienced in political literature.

            “This person definitely knew what he was doing,” Recchia said.

            The ostensible motivation for the flier is that Kruger, Recchia, and Nelson have all crossed party lines to endorse Republicans.

            Kruger takes the brunt of the flier’s attack. Kruger “tries to be a crusader for education, but he has a mail order college degree from Pacific Western (you can purchase a degree for as little as $2,000).”

            Actually, that’s not true at all. The cheapest Pacific Western degree now costs $2,295.

            Kruger would not discuss his educational background with us, saying he does not respond to anonymous literature. Kruger’s chief of staff Jason Koppel told us if the author were to identify himself, the senator would address his concerns. (With a club, perhaps? Just kidding.)

            So what is this Pacific Western University? It’s in Honolulu, but its students don’t get to hang out on the beach. Instead they sit at their home computers and take “self-directed adult courses through on-line services to achieve a professional education,” the school’s Web site reports.

            The site adds, “Pacific Western has not sought membership in any independent accrediting association.”

            In his online Senate biography, Kruger simply states that he has a bachelor’s degree in political science. He does not say where it’s from. The other eight Brooklyn senators all name the schools they attended.

            As for Recchia, the anonymous flier reports, “Recchia ‘graduated’ from Atlanta Law School. Atlanta Law School is not approved by the American Bar Association. To be a NY lawyer and take the bar, the school had to be approved. How is this guy a lawyer?”

            Glad you asked, Mr. Anonymous Flier Writer. Recchia, who attended Kent State as an undergrad, couldn’t get into accredited law schools because his dyslexia sank his LSAT scores. So he went to Atlanta Law, which Recchia told us “is a great law school.”

            Well, it’s not a great law school any more, because it’s been closed for years. While open, it produced fewer members of the state bar (1,439) than Georgia’s five existing law schools. And only 51 percent are members in good standing, compared to over 80 percent of other Georgia law school members.

            Not that we’re knocking Recchia’s education. He persevered when others might have quit. But we just wanted to get the facts straight.

            By the time he graduated from law school, students with learning disabilities like Recchia’s were being given extra time, enlarged print, and other handicaps on bar exams. That helped Recchia pass the bar exams in Indiana (though he turned down a job there so he could return to Brooklyn) and later New York.

            He qualified for the New York Bar by spending a year at an accredited school, namely Touro Law Center.

            Getting back to the flier: Who sent it? No one is sure, but all agree it’s odd to see a flier like this when no election is imminent. It’s possible the sender was motivated by the three politicians’ meddling in Community Board 15’s controversial district manager hiring.

            Another theory is that the real target of the mailing was Kruger, with Recchia and Nelson added as a diversion. The information on Kruger was fresher and more specific, while the comments on the other two were partly inaccurate.

            For example, the flier said, “Recchia is best known for starting nasty rumors about fellow Democrats and hanging his own people out to dry.” But one knowledgeable insider unaffiliated with Recchia said, “That’s not his reputation.” Also, the innuendo about Recchia’s law degree has circulated in past years, Recchia said.

            Of Nelson, the flier said he “coasted to re-election without a Primary or a General election.” In fact, Nelson had a Conservative opponent in the general last year.

            The flier also asserts that Democratic district leader Mike Geller is Nelson’s “puppet master.” But people who know Nelson say Geller is absolutely not his puppet master. Kruger is his puppet master.

***

            HYNES ON HOT SEAT: When you’re in a fierce battle for reelection, slip-ups by your staff members are most unwelcome. So Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes couldn’t have been pleased to see the disappearing act of one of his aides written up in a Flatbush newsletter.

            The staffer, identified only as “Ms. White,” who we presume is one of Hynes’s nearly 400 “community associates” with salaries totaling over $13 million, had promised to help a Flatbush apartment building sign up for vertical police patrols.

            “Ms. White seemed ready to get involved at first. On behalf of the D.A.’s office she was going to get it straightened out. But then she stopped returning phone calls or e-mails. Maybe we threw her by coming back so quickly with a problem to solve. Maybe she just got busy. The people on East 19th were feeling pretty blown off and we were embarrassed and confused. It is, after all, an election year for the D.A., and they knew we were writing about it,” the newsletter reports.

            In frustration, a resident called Erin Barry, a community policing officer for the 70th Precinct, who responded immediately, confronted the loiterers plaguing the building, and resolved the snafu that had delayed its application for vertical patrols.

***

            FENNER HAVING FUN: Braxton Freddie Fenner, a former assistant district attorney under D.A. Joe Hynes now running against his former boss, took special notice of the revelation that top Hynes aide Dino Amoroso lives in Long Island in apparent violation of state law. When he was hired by Hynes in November 1991, Fenner says Hynes required him to sign a statement that read, “I…recognize that the offer is conditional upon my becoming a resident of New York City before I begin work and remaining one during my service.”

            We’d be surprised if Fenner even makes the ballot, but at the very least he seems to be enjoying his campaign for the moment. On May 5 he issued his 13th press release, headlined, “The District Attorney Association of New York State has named Charles Hynes “Prosecutor of the Year.”

            Fenner wrote, “Braxton Freddie Fenner congratulates Mr. Hynes. And, I would like to recognize him for ignoring the residency law, ignoring individual rights, and ignoring prosecutorial misconduct. This truly is an outstanding record of accomplishment.”

***

            FAN MAIL: An impassioned opponent of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development plan, Phyllis Wrynn, has been trying to recruit us for the opposition. She believes the six-block project would destroy the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.

            Wrynn also questioned the objectivity of this newspaper’s coverage of the controversial proposal.

            Some excerpts from our e-mail exchange:

            “Dear Erik,

            “Is it true that your publisher is the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and refused to have an official function on the Ratner proposal open to the public and reporters, as was originally announced? I really need to know if we can trust your paper’s reporting of the development of the Atlantic Yards if that is true.”

            “Dear Phyllis,

            Dan Holt, the co-publisher of my paper, is the current chairman of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. I just read a story in the Brooklyn Paper about Daniel Goldstein [of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn] and the Hagan sisters [Patti and Schellie of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition] being barred from some meeting the chamber held. Apparently there was a fear those three would be disruptive. Reporters were also not allowed, which I believe was the plan all along and not a change of plans. Was this Dan Holt’s decision? I doubt it. But if so, who cares? A private institution is not obligated to open its doors to reporters or anyone else. Our reporters didn’t attend either.

            “Anyway, Dan Holt does not interfere with our reporting of the Ratner plan or anything else. Most newspapers have a wall between the business and editorial departments. I’m not sure if that’s the case at the Brooklyn Paper, where Ratner’s people believe publisher Ed Weintrob assigns and rewrites his reporters’ stories to give them an anti-Ratner slant.”

            (We forgot to mention that Weintrob bought the URL forestcityratner.com and redirected all visitors there to his paper’s own Web site.)

            Wrynn also wrote, “And, do you really believe that your life will not be affected one iota by a construction project which will take decades? Do you go from neighborhood to neighborhood? Do you breathe the air? Do you ever have appointments that might be affected by traffic delays? Do you have a sense of the difference in light and air quality between Brooklyn and Manhattan?

            “I’m sorry. I’ve always had respect for your diligent coverage of the news. Your take on this just doesn’t make sense to me.”

            We replied, “I suppose ‘one iota’ might have been an exaggeration. Perhaps I’ll have to bike around the construction zone to get to Fort Greene Park to play tennis. The traffic won’t affect me much because I don’t own a car and I rarely drive. On the air quality issue, the problem is not tall buildings so much as vehicles. Right now, nearly every fan at the Nets games drives there. With the new arena, most will be able to take the subway or bus.”

            Wrynn: “I urge you to read studies done of transportation to sporting events country-wide. There is solid evidence that the people buying the huge numbers of luxury boxes and other seats they are projecting as needed to make this concept viable don’t and won’t take public transportation to such venues.”

            Us: “The bulk of the seats at any basketball arena are not courtside or in luxury boxes. I’d guess about 80 percent of the ticket revenue comes from 20 percent of the seats. These are the folks who would be taking taxis to the games.

            You’re asking me to look at transportation data from other arenas. Do these arenas have 11 subway lines under them or two blocks away? Plus a commuter railroad and six bus routes in front of it? You can't compare apples and oranges, or Minneapolis and Brooklyn.

            “A major factor in my thinking is the philosophy to build up, not out. Building out is sprawl; building up is efficient. I suppose in a perfect world we could all live in four-story brownstones a few blocks from the subway, but...”

            We tossed in a quote from Riverkeeper’s recent sprawl report:

            "As sprawl degrades the environment, it also impairs the local economy. New infrastructure in sprawling areas, including new roads, water lines, and sewer lines, along with expenditures for new schools and increased police and fire protection cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Planning that keeps development in community centers leads to more efficient distribution of services, and therefore lower property taxes.”

            Wrynn: “But Erik, we have close to a perfect world, so why would we want to corrupt that? The humanity of our neighborhoods is so evident! We are NOT talking about creating sprawl; we’re NOT talking about not developing the yards. We are talking about reasonable alternatives that enhance our neighborhoods and bridge them, not puncture the sky and cast historic cityscapes in shadow, lining developers’ pockets, giving them sweetheart deals as far into the future as they could possibly live.”

            Us: “You’re missing my point. Building up is efficient; building out is not. If you build up in Brooklyn and create 4,500 units near public transportation, that’s 4,500 1/3-acre lots that won’t be developed in the wilderness of upstate New York and New Jersey with highway-widening and Wal-Marts and strip malls to follow. Sprawl is worse than some shadows from Ratner’s buildings.

            “The world may be perfect for those of us lucky to already live in low-rise housing near mass transit. Not everyone is as lucky as we are.”

            All of this got us exactly nowhere, as Wrynn wrote back, “Desecrating historic neighborhoods so that sprawl doesn’t happen elsewhere is the most specious argument I have ever heard.”

            We realized that, like Winnie the Pooh, we were tracking the very footprints we’d left at the beginning of our journey. Still, we compulsively replied.

            “Which historic neighborhoods would be desecrated? Park Slope? Fort Greene? Prospect Heights? HOW WOULD THEY BE DESECRATED? Explain to me how a typical day in the life of a resident of these neighborhoods would be desecrated.”

            We’ll stop now before we put the sleeping-pill companies out of business.

            OK, one more thought. A decent studio apartment in a Prospect Heights co-op (34 Plaza Street) is being listed for $275,000—plus you need a six-figure salary to be approved by the co-op board. That’s insane.

            Brownstone Brooklyn is wonderful for those who live there, but most people can’t afford it. More housing units, and more “affordable” housing units, such as those Ratner wants to build, would increase the supply/demand ratio and thus counterbalance the astronomical rise in property values of the last 10 years.

            This is not to express support for the tax breaks Ratner would get. We’d like to see a federal law forbidding states or municipalities from granting tax privileges on an individual basis. That would help end sweetheart deals and competition between local governments that lowers taxes for some at the expense of everyone else.

***

            WRONG TURN FOR RIGHT-WINGER: In his self-described right-wing blog, Brooklyn Republican district leader Jim Sutliff writes, “I’m still trying to understand how Mom-and-Pop operations ‘benefit’ from the MTA if none of their employees or customers use public transportation to get to their business location. The business climate in New York is horrifying, and even with so-called Republicans in control of the State Senate, the situation may just get worse.”

            Commercial rents, occupancy rates, and population density in New York City are high and getting higher—not exactly signs of a “horrifying” business climate. Meanwhile, the upstate economy has been sluggish for years.

            What does New York City have that upstate doesn’t? A public transportation system.

            Mom-and-pop shops thrive on population density and foot traffic, which can’t exist without mass transit.

            Glad we could clear that up for you, Jim.

***

            TIDBITS: Councilwoman Letitia “Tish” James and two of the candidates preparing to challenge her—Democrat Charles Billups and Republican Tony Herbert—have asked Geoffrey Davis for his support, Davis told us. A third contender, Democrat Eric Blackwell, has not. Davis is the brother of the late James Davis, who preceded James in the 35th Council District seat. Geoffrey Davis, who lost to Tish James in 2003, plans to run for office again but not this year…

            …According to the Campaign Finance Board, campaigns (such as that of City Council candidate Pat Russo) will have to report as “in-kind contributions” the fair market value of the use of State Senator Marty Golden’s catering hall, Bay Ridge Manor. Russo announced his candidacy there…

            …We saw where Councilman Vinny Gentile has introduced a bill allowing double-parking for up to five minutes. That’s not a long time to wait for a motorist blocked by a double-parker. But if an ambulance or fire truck were delayed by legalized double-parking and someone died, Gentile would have some tough questions to answer…

            …We saw this note: “Carmen and Glenn Wolin invite you to a reception for Marty Markowitz. Everyone knows what an incredible job our indefatigable Brooklyn borough president has done, so please join us at our home on Sunday May 15 to help raise the necessary funds to re-elect him.”

            Markowitz has raised over $1.4 million and has no opponent. Gee, how “necessary” are those funds to re-elect him?

            …Old habits die hard: In endorsing Republican Pat Russo for City Council in Bay Ridge, the Brooklyn Young Republican Club issued a press release saying Russo “will fight against crime.” That was effective campaign propaganda in the 1970s and ’80s, but crime has since receded as a political issue. Besides, most voters know the City Council can do precious little to fight crime, since it’s the mayor who’s in charge of the Police Department. The Council controls no aspect of law enforcement…

            …Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs allocated $250,000 to spruce up Caton Avenue between Parade Place and Coney Island Avenue and $50,000 for public bathrooms to serve the reconstructed Parade Ground. Her reward? A thank-you…and a request for another $300,000, which the Prospect Park Alliance says is needed to finish the project. Park administrator Tupper Thomas called Jacobs “the most generous Assembly member we have around the park.” The alliance is also asking Councilwoman Yvette Clarke to fund repairs to Parade Place…

            …When Councilman David Yassky researched the law on businesses with locked fire doors, he found that fines begin at just $500. But, oddly, he found no fine for businesses with no fire doors at all…

            Alan Fleishman, Democratic district leader in the 52nd Assembly District and an activist for gay rights, supported Jeannette Gadson in the 2001 Brooklyn borough president race because she supported gay marriage and the other two candidates did not. But Ken Fisher, the former City Councilman who finished third, changed his mind about two years later, and now Marty Markowitz (who won the race) has as well.

            Fleishman recalled telling Markowitz in 2001, “In a few years, you are going to be in favor of gay marriage.” Markowitz has faced little or no political backlash for his new stance on the issue…

            …Transportation Alternatives project director Noah Budnick, a Brooklynite who was badly injured in a bicycle accident last month, is recovering and could be nearly back to normal in a few months. “He is a miracle of modern science!” gushed Paul Steely White, TA’s executive director…

            …The deadline for candidates to submit biographical information to be included in the Campaign Finance Board’s 2005 Voter Guide is June 8. The CFB’s software must be used. If you’re thinking of running but are unable to use the software, we urge you to withdraw…

            …Modeling companies sometimes have difficulty getting visas for foreign beauties to fly in for photo shoots. To bring the problem to the attention of the powers that be, a handful of modeling companies donated money to the mayoral campaign of Rep. Anthony Weiner. They don’t want Weiner to be mayor; they want his support in Congress. This is a typical example of the reality of political fundraising.

            Weiner, incidentally, is working on a bill to move models into the visa group for “performers” which would make the visas less expensive and perhaps easier to obtain, the New York Sun reported…

            …We occasionally hear that Councilman David Yassky is thinking of running for Congress in the district to be vacated by Rep. Major Owens in 2006. But it’s worth noting that Yassky’s Brooklyn Heights residence is in Rep. Nydia Velazquez’s district. It would not be illegal for him to run elsewhere, but it’s nonetheless unlikely…

            …Rep. Nydia Velazquez says a fee increase imposed by the Bush administration has doubled the cost for small businesses to get certain loans from the Small Business Administration. Since the increase, the amount lent by the SBA’s 7(a) loan program has dropped from $3.94 billion in the last quarter of fiscal year 2004 to $3.42 billion in the second quarter of 2005, a drop of 13.2 percent. Velazquez has introduced a bill that would counteract the fee increase…

            …At 7 p.m. June 6 Lambda Independent Democrats will endorse for mayor, public advocate, contested City Council races, and Civil Court at Old First Reformed Church, 7th Avenue and Carroll Street in Park Slope…

            …We got this note from pharmacist and Brooklyn district attorney candidate Sandra Roper: “Holt McCalloney, who stars in ‘CSI-Miami,’ saw your comment about my turning the Brooklyn D.A.’s office into CSI-Brooklyn, looked up my website and came to my fundraising Justice Card Awards last night. It went really well. Thanks for roping-in the Hollywood crowd.” Ralph Carter, who played the little brother of J.J. on the sitcom “Good Times,” also attended…

            …Rep. Nydia Velazquez couldn’t disagree more with one of her constituents, Councilman David Yassky, about the plan to rezone the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront, which Yassky helped negotiate with the Bloomberg administration. Yassky calls the plan “terrific” while Velazquez calls it “shameful and outrageous.” The final deal, which will result in approximately 33 percent of new apartments to be rented at below market rates, was generally cheered by advocates for affordable housing and by developers, but opposed by some neighborhood activists who predict higher rents.

            A cynic might say to those folks, “Welcome to capitalism.” But this column is not the place for cynicism. Certainly not…

            …The Daily News sent a reporter and photographer to Rep. Anthony Weiner’s midnight hockey game at Chelsea Piers on May 9. We still find it hard to picture the rail-thin Weiner playing hockey. Well, we suppose if he’s ever targeted by goons, he could always disguise himself as a hockey stick…

            …Bay Ridge Democratic district leader Ralph Perfetto and his club, the American Heritage Political Organization, endorsed Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes for reelection…

            …Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez and her colleague Annabel Palma of the Bronx held a Mothers’ Day press conference to call for a tax on incomes over $500,000 to reduce class sizes in public schools—not the kind of story that gets assignment editors very excited. But on a slow news day, sometimes there’s nothing else to cover, and in this case Newsday took the bait. Gonzalez, whose media presence is minimal, got a single quote into the humdrum article’s final paragraph…

            …A reader e-mailed us, “I do hope that Brooklyn Democrats are searching furiously for a replacement to run instead of [State] Senator [Kevin] Parker in 2006. It would be travesty if our choice in a primary were between the hot-blooded Parker and that idiot Noach Dear.” Better get ready for a travesty, then. The Democratic establishment won’t support a challenger to an incumbent Democrat…

            …Our small item on handicapped ramps for Coney Island beach generated quite a few responses from readers, most of them noting the existence of all-terrain wheelchairs. One e-mail came from E.M. Prentiss. When we replied that the Parks Department was planning to build ramps that dead-end at mid-beach but not provide beach-roving wheelchairs, Prentiss wrote back, “To be honest, having a ramp that gets me halfway down the beach is fine with me. I would never even dip my toe in the ocean, but would enjoy being getting out of the city and be able to wheel down the ramp and sit on a blanket under an umbrella.”

            …Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, who’s at war with the Brooklyn Democratic organization and is trying to distance himself from it, says the only reason the organization supported his reelection campaigns is that it didn’t want to be on the losing side. But that doesn’t explain why the machine supported Hynes’s longshot campaigns for governor and attorney general in the 1990s.

***

            This is the final edition of Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist. Many thanks to its loyal readers of the past three years. To contact me at Crain’s New York Business, where I report on politics and government and contribute to The Insider, call 212-210-0100.

 

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Erik Engquist founded this column in 1994 and wrote it until 1996 when he left for four years of daily newspaper reporting in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He resumed writing Brooklyn Politics in April 2002 and continued through May 2005, when he accepted a position at Crain's New York Business reporting on city and state politics and government. He continues to welcome political news via phone at 212-210-0745 or e-mail at eengquist@crain.com.