Inclusive board meeting came with a price

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It’s been two months since a couple hundred people gathered at the Riverdale Temple to share their thoughts on a proposed expansion of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. 

It was an unusual place for Community Board 8’s land use committee to meet, primarily because no one likely remembers the last time such a meeting was held at the Independence Avenue synagogue.

And there’s a reason for that.

For every hour neighbors and Hebrew Home officials argued about how much people were paying to buy into its proposed continuing care retirement community, CB8 was shelling out $325 to Riverdale Temple.

By the end of the four-hour meeting, CB8 paid $1,300 — what someone might pay for an entire month living in a one-bedroom apartment in Kingsbridge — which was $1,300 more than the community board has paid for meeting space over the last four years, at least — combined.

The sudden expenditure was justified, CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty said, because the Hebrew Home debate required plenty of space for people, and plenty of parking. And Riverdale Temple was the only venue available that night.

“In my view, I did what was necessary to reach the appropriate decision,” Ginty said. “There were no other options.”

‘No alternative’

It started when Ginty received word from the Bronx borough president’s office — a May meeting seeking public input about the Hebrew Home’s expansion plans didn’t meet the city’s requirements, primarily the rule that anyone appearing at the hearing and wishes to speak will be given the opportunity to do so.

That meant Ginty had to schedule another meeting, and fast, since the 60 days CB8 had to consider the Hebrew Home application was running out. The other meetings had taken place at both The Riverdale Y and the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, and for reasons Ginty never made fully clear, neither past location was chosen to host the meeting re-do on July 7.

Instead, Ginty turned to Riverdale Temple.

“We had no alternative,” Ginty told the land use committee at its July 26 meeting after The Riverdale Press raised questions about the expenditure. “We had to do this under the strict rules of ULURP.”

Ginty is referring to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure exercised by the city to handle special zoning requests like Hebrew Home was making to build its CCRC. According to the city’s planning department website, community boards are only required to schedule a hearing “at a convenient place of public assembly chosen by the board and located within its community district.”

In fact, if such a place can’t be found, the community board is free to find a “centrally located place of public assembly” within the Bronx. ULURP doesn’t require minimum space or parking availability, the two key factors Ginty said motivated her and land use chair Charles Moerdler to choose Riverdale Temple.

“We talked about it, and Chuck had concerns about the size and about parking as a convenience,” Ginty said. “Therefore, we could not go back to The Y, we had just been there. We could not go to the Conservative synagogue, and there was no space big enough that was available. I went back to Chuck, and we decided on Riverdale Temple.”

Did public need to know?

Ginty talked the decision over not just with Moerdler, but a few other members of the board, including past chair Dan Padernacht and law, rules and ethics chair Martin Wolpoff. 

She signed the agreement with Riverdale Temple on July 5, and then led an executive committee meeting the next night without mentioning the $1,300 expense. Two weeks later, Ginty hosted a general CB8 board meeting at the American Legion Post in Kingsbridge, and yet again, never brought up the expense.

“It was not a secret,” Ginty said. “The chair of land use, and two (other) chairs were aware of it. And four officers.”

Unlike other financial discussions where decisions on how to spend money have yet to be made, Ginty didn’t disclose the Riverdale Temple expenditure publicly because the decision had already been made. 

“I made the decision, and it was finished,” she said.

And Ginty may be in the right withholding that expenditure from the public, according to Robert Freeman, executive director for New York’s Committee on Open Government.

“It all depends on how much authority has been delegated to the chair previously,” he said. “Maybe they have a policy or practice or something that enables the chair to engage in the kinds of expenditures he or she deems to be appropriate.”

In fact, there are a number of public boards throughout the state that spend millions of taxpayer dollars without any public discussion, he said. “It happens all the time.”

It’s not clear if any such authority delegation was made for the chair when it comes to spending money for meeting space. This past year, Ginty’s first year as chair, no other money was spent on meeting space, according to district manager Ciara Gannon. Padernacht, who led CB8 the previous three years, told The Press he’s not aware of the committee ever spending any money on meeting space while he was in charge.

And not everyone seems to be on board with Ginty’s decision to spend the money here. Wolpoff told The Press in an email that he wasn’t aware of the expenditure until after the fact.

“While I was made aware of the expenditure as preparations were being made for the meeting, with equity, and the fact that so many local institutions absorb the cost, I would not have agreed had I been asked in advance,” Wolpoff said.

It wasn’t a secret

Ginty has championed transparency as part of her leadership of CB8. She ensured that the district manager search committee met in public, and even walked out of a city homeless services department meeting last year because it prohibited members of the media to attend.

Yet she doesn’t feel her lack of public disclosure about the Riverdale Temple expenditure violates that personal policy.

“The word ‘transparency’ can get thrown around a lot to the point where it has no meaning,” Ginty said. “And to me, the opposite of transparency is keeping something a secret. This was discussed among members.

“I don’t want to say it was 100 percent universally known. But remember, I talked to four officers, and I talked to Chuck … who were aware of it. There was no secret.”

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