Covering for a community when the big chair’s empty

Andrew Cohen’s council exit won’t create a total vacuum, however

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What happens when a city council district doesn’t have a city council member?

That’s the question some were asking even before Andrew Cohen stepped down from his city council seat Dec. 31 to become a Bronx Supreme Court judge. His departure leaves the greater Riverdale and Kingsbridge area, as well as Norwood and Wakefield without representation until after a March 23 special election.

In his final weekly newsletter that went out to constituents on Christmas, Cohen said day-to-day operations would still be available at his district office.

Additionally, Cohen told Bronx Community Board 7 that Councilman Fernando Cabrera — who also represents parts of Kingsbridge Heights in a district that borders his — is willing to lend a hand as well, at least until the seat is filled.

“Our office is open to anybody, whether they’re in my council district or not,” said Cabrera, who is gearing up for a borough president run this year. “We will fill in the gap wherever the gap needs to be filled.”

While day-to-day constituent services are important, so is voting. So is interacting with various different city agencies like the transportation and sanitation departments. And so is ensuring this part of the Bronx is represented when it comes time to formalize the city budget this spring. Budget negotiations are especially important considering the fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now, the Office of Management and Budget is already asking agencies to start looking at cuts,” said Dan Padernacht, one of the people looking to replace Cohen on the council.

With Cohen gone, the city council’s community engagement division — led by Faiza Ali — will remotely run his district office. What’s left of Cohen’s remaining staff will be absorbed into the council’s central staffing. Others, like former chief of staff Ariana Collado, is now the executive director of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. 

Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office — which is coordinating the transition — told The Riverdale Press it will reach out to Community Board 8, the 50th Precinct’s community council, local organizations and other elected officials to tell them who’ll be running constituent services during this time.

Constituent inquires will be answered by liaisons from the community engagement division, according to Cohen’s newsletter. People can continue to contact the office at the same number and email address they are currently using — (718) 549-7300, or district11@council.nyc.gov. 

Cohen’s West 231st Street office hasn’t been physically opened much since the start of the coronavirus pandemic anyway, said former Cohen spokeswoman Harmony Guo. Still, the office has opened on a limited basis outside of some certain services that require some close personal contact — like notary — have not been available. 

Now that Cohen is gone, the physical office space is closed to the public, and will remain closed until after the special election. 

“I don’t think that there’s going to be a lot of people impacted by that sort of information gap,” Guo said. “But we’re doing our best to make sure to let people know that these services will continue to be available.”

However, some feel Cohen’s office hasn’t done enough to get this information out. In her letter to the editor published in The Press ahead of Cohen’s newsletter, community activist Stephanie Coggins expressed concern about not having a council member representing the community, especially during a pandemic. Even worse, she believes Cohen’s office has been slow to fill the information gap.

 “What happens if they have a problem on their block,” Coggins said, “and they need some assistance from a local official?”

Once Cohen got his newsletter out, however, Coggins expressed some relief.

“It doesn’t answer questions about representation,” she said, “but it’s something.”

While losing a representative during a pandemic could be more problematic, it’s not uncommon for council members to step down before their term ends, leaving the seat vacant until a special election. In fact, the special election to replace Cohen will happen the same day voters in the Fordham Heights area take to the polls to select a temporary successor to Ritchie Torres, who was elected to Congress last November.

Just last month, voters around Co-op City elected Kevin Riley to the council to replace Andy King, who was expelled in October.

Jessica Haller, another candidate seeking Cohen’s seat, said she’s worried about the Bronx having one less representative in city government during the coronavirus pandemic. And then there’s the disruption to the flow of information — about school closures, the COVID-19 vaccine and other issues — during a time when people need to stay up on these constantly changing situations.

“If there are deliberations, if legislation comes up that particularly affects or does not affect the Bronx, forget our district,” Haller said. 

“The whole Bronx has that much less voice.”

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