The board president of a housing co-op near Riverdale who has criticized his fellow board members for secretiveness and cast himself as a defender of residents’ well-being has blocked the release of information about the co-op’s operations to board members and derided a resident’s request for repairs as “stupidity,” according to emails obtained by The Press.
The email exchanges between Andrew Kimerling, the board president of Park Reservoir houses in Van Cortlandt Village, his fellow board members and the co-op’s lawyers were provided to The Press by various sources, who asked that their identity not be published. Some added that they had already been subjected to bullying and feared retribution for speaking out. In an interview with The Press, Mr. Kimerling confirmed having written the emails, but defended his stance.
Mr. Kimerling has been at the center of a dispute that flared up at the co-op in July, after simmering quietly for some two years. The dispute revolves around a plan by a majority of board members to hire a new management firm and sever Park Reservoir’s ties with a much larger and older sister co-op, the Amalgamated.
Nine out of 12 Park Reservoir board members have expressed support for the plan, arguing it would allow their co-op to take control of its finances, save unnecessary expenses and end rent hikes. Critics, such as Mr. Kimerling, argue the separation would destroy decades-old cooperative lifestyles, eliminate social programs, cut access to the larger co-op’s security and maintenance services, and could cause the buildings to fall into shambles as a result of cutting costs – leading to potential invasions of pests or disruptions in heating during the winter.
But above all, they blame the board’s majority for working on their project in secret from residents.
Mr. Kimerling blew the whistle on the plan in July – at a time when the project was nearing completion, and when his opposition to the plan faced a near-certain defeat on the board. He and his allies called emergency impromptu meetings of cooperators, who convened in the lobbies of their buildings in early July.
While some applauded Mr. Kimerling’s gambit, others denounced it.
The “board was elected by us, cooperators,” Natalya Girshman said in an open letter to Mr. Kimerling this summer. “They are our people, living where we live and having [the] same problems we do. And if they think we have lots to gain by splitting from Amalgamated, they deserve a chance to present their findings and numbers when they are ready, not when you decide to throw a fit.”
Ms. Girshman also called for Mr. Kimerling’s resignation.
In the months that followed, opponents and supporters of the management-change plan have sought to argue their causes publicly, as well as continuing to work behind the scenes.
A Park Reservoir board member who supported the management-change plan requested detailed financial reports and maintenance information from the co-op’s office. The information could help analyze the housing organization’s expenses and determine whether its budgetary spending was justified. Details of that communication were made available to The Press, and the board member involved spoke with The Press on condition of anonymity.
Office employees rejected the request.
When the board member followed up with an appeal for information to Mr. Kimerling, he rejected it flatly, adding in his Aug. 18 email that he had also “instructed the office not to comply with your requests.”
“I read your requests for information. Those requests are not for you to ask for,” Mr. Kimerling told the board member in his email. “They would be made to our auditors before they embark on our annual CPA review and exam by either our treasurer or myself. Not by any board member at any time.”
The treasurer, Lloyd Silverman, is a veteran member of the board and a long-time ally of Mr. Kimerling, who has served on the board for 35 years.
In explaining his denial of information, Mr. Kimerling also cited a supposed lack of resources to handle the request.
But a source familiar with the matter who spoke to The Press on condition of anonymity dismissed Mr. Kimerling’s argument. The co-op’s office was certain to have the information about finances, maintenance and security services readily available, since the information was necessary to manage the housing corporation efficiently, the source said. Sharing the information with the board member would only have been the matter of downloading or emailing a few files, the source told The Press.
Mr. Kimerling defended his decision in an interview with The Press, saying that much of the information had already presented in 50- to 70-page reports prepared for monthly board meetings. He seemed to offer no explanation reconciling that claim with his assertion to the board member that the information was “not for you to ask for.”
In the requests for information, the board member “wanted the office to put down their daily work and provide years and years of information specifically for [the board member],” Mr. Kimerling said. It was “crazy for one person to ask for all this information,” he added.
During the past four months when Mr. Kimerling has been fighting publicly against the management-change plans, he and his allies have repeatedly told cooperators that cutting ties with the Amalgamated and trying to save costs by hiring a different management team could severely damage the quality of life at Park Reservoir. Lower management expenses would leave Park Reservoir residents without access to the Amalgamated’s efficient rapid-response maintenance crews and could cause the buildings to fall into disrepair, Mr. Kimerling and his allies have argued.
But internal memos obtained by The Press paint a different picture of Mr. Kimerling’s approach to maintenance problems at Park Reservoir.
In a letter on Aug. 7, a cooperator appealed on behalf of a neighbor for repairs to the ceiling and floor of her apartment, which had apparently been damaged by a water leak from a nearby storage room. A co-op supervisor whom the neighbor had contacted dismissed her complaint, saying there was no record of a leak, and allegedly claiming that the tenant should hire an outside contractor and pay for repairs out of pocket if she wanted the problem fixed, according to the letter.
After the complaint was circulated among co-op leaders, Mr. Kimerling sent an email to board members.
“I have already answered [the cooperator] about this stupidity last week.,” Mr. Kimerling wrote, according to emails obtained by The Press.
“I basically told him to ‘consider the source’ because it’s all made up in her head,” Mr. Kimerling’s email read. “There is no storage room above her and no one at the service department would ever tell her no repairs would be made. This is the same genius who wanted to run for the board a few years ago, even though she’s not a shareholder; her parents who own the apartment are.”
He concluded his email by adding: “Enjoy the warm weather; go to the beach.”
A board member copied on the electronic conversation emailed back to Mr. Kimerling, saying there was in fact a storage room right next to the woman’s first-floor apartment, so a leak was “a possibility” that deserved a closer look. The board member also urged Mr. Kimerling to show more respect and compassion for the cooperator, regardless of his personal feelings.
Mr. Kimerling dismissed the appeal during the email exchange, on which 12 board members and some of Mr. Kimerling’s close allies outside the panel were copied.
The damage to the apartment that the cooperator described as a result of a leak was in fact peeling paint in a home that had not been repainted in 20 years, Mr. Kimerling told The Press on Tuesday. Service employees have inspected her apartment and the storage room and found no trace of a leak, he said.
He also defended his harsh words toward the cooperator.
“I stand by what I said,” he told The Press. “That’s my personal opinion.”
“I’ve heard this person speak on several occasions,” including a time she wanted to run for the board, despite being ineligible for the office, since she was not a shareholder in the cooperative and was living in the apartment of her parents, who were shareholders, Mr. Kimerling said.
“What comes out of her mouth is a lot of foolishness,” he said.
The board – which Mr. Kimerling has led alternately as president or vice president for at least a decade – has generally shrouded with secrecy its work on all major decisions, such as large-scale renovations or millions of dollars in loans. Board members cite the co-op’s bylaws that empower them to make substantial decisions without consulting residents.
The board has been announcing its decisions to cooperators at general meetings, but some residents complain that the announcements were made after the plans had already been implemented, without giving cooperators a chance to influence the decisions.
But even against this background, the secretiveness around the board’s work on the change of management outraged many supporters and opponents of the plan alike.
“There has never – and I’ve been here essentially my whole life – been any decision by the board as significant as this,” Gary Axelbank, a cooperator who leads residents’ opposition to the management change and an ally of Mr. Kimerling, told The Press.
The board had been working on its plan at so-called executive meetings – with no board secretary present and with no minutes taken, Mr. Axelbank said.
“If that’s not secretive or underhanded, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Proponents of the management change deny the accusation.
“Our intent was not to hide anything from you,” a board member, Jacqueline Mylie told a meeting of cooperators on Oct. 2. The board members were “very concerned” about the cost of the co-op’s association with the Amalgamated, she said.
Rents at Park Reservoir have increased on average by more than 35 percent over the past four years, according to the co-op’s financial reports, although the prices remain below rents in the neighborhood.
The Oct. 2 meeting was initiated by Mr. Kimerling, Mr. Axelbank and their allies, who circulated flyers calling for “power to the people.”
“Take back the power, so we can decide on our own management,” the appeal read.
The calls for taking back the power had earlier been advanced this summer by proponents of greater transparency and accountability in the work of Park Reservoir’s board.
Mr. Axelbank’s fellow activists also circulated a petition for a meeting to adopt an amendment to co-op bylaws that would require any management company change to be approved by a two-third majority among cooperators.
About 120 cooperators signed the petition, which needed about 70 signatures for the meeting to take place, Mr. Axelbank told The Press.
The amendment was written by Mr. Kimerling in consultation with the co-op’s lawyer, Ezra Goodman, according to Mr. Axelbank. The signature drive began on Sept. 9, according to residents’ accounts, while Mr. Kimerling’s consultations with the lawyer on the language of the amendment began at least a month earlier, according to emails obtained by The Press.
The amendment requiring a two-thirds majority approval for any management changes, if implemented, would present a substantial hurdle for any such projects.
The requirement would create a “deadlock,” a cooperator, Joseph Zhitnitsky, told the Oct. 2 meeting. At a cooperative where many residents never bother to vote in board elections, securing an approval vote from two-thirds of all shareholders may prove difficult. Meanwhile, the board would not be able to change management companies without such an approval, if the amendment takes effect.
The amendment passed by a 111-35 vote at the Oct. 2 meeting.
A day after the vote, the board member who had been seeking information about the co-op’s operations started receiving some of the data on Monday, after weeks of repeated requests, Mr. Kimerling confirmed to The Press. He explained the timing by saying the data had taken awhile to compile.
Park Reservoir is part of New York State’s Mitchell-Lama program for low-middle income housing. Because of the housing corporation’s involvement in a state-run program, the amendment still needs to be approved by state authorities, Mr. Axelbank said.
Mr. Goodman, the lawyer, has warned that the amendment curtailing the board’s power to replace management firms may contradict corporate law and may be invalid.
Editor’s Note: the author is a member of Amalgamated Housing co-op.