Jo Hamilton, a former member of MH Community Board 2, fined for conflicts of interest violations

By LOUIS FLORES

Jo Hamilton, a former member of Manhattan's Community Board 2, was fined $10,660 by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board for having received over a decade's worth of free membership to the exclusive Soho House club, Gothamist has reported.

During Ms. Hamilton's terms on Community Board 2, the Soho House had business come up before Community Board 2 at least five times, according to information from the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, triggering violations of the city's conflicts of interest laws.

Ms. Hamilton was first appointed to Community Board 2 in April 1999 when C. Virginia Fields was Manhattan Borough President and Christine Quinn represented the Third District in the New York City Council.  Ms. Hamilton served on Community Board 2 until March 2005, taking one year off, before she was reappointed to Community Board 2 in April 2006 when Scott Stringer was Manhattan Borough President and Councilmember Quinn had become the City Council speaker.  Ms. Hamilton stepped down from Community Board 2 in June 2014, according to information from the city's Conflicts of Interest Board.

Requests for information sent to David Gruber, chair of Community Board 2, and Bob Gormley, the board's district manager, were not answered.

A request to the attorney, who represented Ms. Hamilton before the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, was not answered, either.  A message left with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board was never returned.

An attempt to reach management at Soho House for comment was unsuccessful.

The Soho House provided former Manhattan Community Board 2 member Jo Hamilton with over a decade's worth of free membership to the exclusive, luxury private club, during which time the Soho House had five matters come up for review by Community Board 2, in violation of the city's conflicts of interests laws.  Ms. Hamilton was fined $10,660 for violating the law. Source :  Soho House/Official Web site Photograph

The Soho House provided former Manhattan Community Board 2 member Jo Hamilton with over a decade's worth of free membership to the exclusive, luxury private club, during which time the Soho House had five matters come up for review by Community Board 2, in violation of the city's conflicts of interests laws.  Ms. Hamilton was fined $10,660 for violating the law. Source :  Soho House/Official Web site Photograph

According to the signed Disposition in the Conflicts of Interest Board's investigation of Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Hamilton acknowledged that Soho House provided to her the free membership for reasons related to her position on Community Board 2.

An online resource handbook available to members of Community Board 2 has not been updated since 2008.  However, Appendix E to the handbook pertains to conflicts of interest.  One of the conflicts of interest regulations in Appendix E plainly states, "No public servant may use or appear to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant."  If Community Board members have questions, they are encouraged to contact the Conflicts of Interest Board.  

The offices of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) and Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) were contacted for comment.  Community Board members are appointed by the Borough President overseeing the Community Board ; half of the members are nominated by the New York City Councilmember, in whose district the Community Board is located.  No answer was received from either Borough President Brewer or Councilmember Johnson.

Besides reviewing liquor license applications and approving business permits for bars and private clubs, the city's broad network of Community Boards have influence over the gentrification of city.  Bars and private clubs represent nickels and dimes to the billions of dollars at stake in large real estate development deals.

Community Board members facilitate the public's first opportunity to review zone-busting real estate applications filed under the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP process.  It's the intention of the ULURP process that the public would participate in Community Members' discussions about zone-busting real estate development proposals.  However, an entrenched set of influential real estate lobbyists in New York City have appeared to have been able to game the system, some government reform advocates claim.  

During Ms. Hamilton's term at Community Board 2, the board oversaw the gentrification of the Meatpacking District and the West Village neighborhoods of Manhattan, for example, displacing small businesses, charity hospitals, and many low-income residents, including senior citizens living on fixed incomes.  Soho, also in Community Board 2's realm of influence, was largely gentrified long ago.  

Examples of zone-busting real estate projects approved by Community Board 2 include the demolition and the $1 billion luxury condo conversion of St. Vincent's Hospital and the massive, $3 billion expansion by New York University that will claim and demolish public park land and many low-rise buildings in favour of a mega campus that, as a consequence of New York University's tax-exempt status, will not contribute any real estate tax revenue to city government.  To counteract the voice of the public, large real estate developers have been known to form astroturf groups, to muck up the Community Board review of ULURP applications.  In the case of St. Vincent's Hospital, the developer Rudin Management Company formed an astroturf group called Westside Healthcare Coalition, to paradoxically advocate for private investment in the West Village by demolishing strategic community resources, like a full-service, charity hospital.

Critics of the ULURP process have expressed concerns that the procedure can be corrupted.

"What happens in the pre-ULURP process is that there are agreements made between public officials and communities that occur outside the sunshine of the public process, many of them behind closed doors," said Hunter College professor Tom Angiotti for an article that no longer exists on The New York Observer Web site, but still remains archived, in part, on a post on the Queens Crap blog. "They are informal arrangements, informal meetings, and quite logically they happen before the ULURP process because no applicant wants to go through a seven-month process with all the time and effort that it involves and find that in the end their application is going to be turned down because they didn't anticipate the opposition of certain groups."

That a private club as small as Soho House succeeded in compromising the city's conflicts of interest rules at Community Board 2 worries government reform activists as real estate developers seize on private and city owned-land for further gentrification efforts being launched by the de Blasio administration.  Public libraries are being sold to developers, controversial construction on park land in Brooklyn and Manhattan are planned or have been approved, and the mayor's office continues to identify neighborhoods for further gentrification.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) announced that the city would target Flushing, Queens, for zone-busting development, and the city's Economic Development Corporation has expressed interest in exploiting Jamaica, Queens, for rapid development, as well.  Flushing is encompassed in Queens Community Boards 7, 8, and 11, whilst Jamaica is encompassed in Queens Community Boards 8 and 12.  Already, a group has formed in Jamaica "to build relationships with private companies" to facilitate real estate investments in Jamaica.  

Brad Hoylman, a former chair of Community Board 2 who has since been elected to represent the Lower West Side of Manhattan in the New York State Senate, was contacted for information about Ms. Hamilton's conduct while he chaired Community Board 2.  Like other officials, he did not answer the request for comment.  Whilst Rudin Management Company was seeking approvals from Community Board 2 to convert St. Vincent's into a massive luxury condominium and townhouse complex, the real estate patriarch William Rudin served on the board of directors of Mr. Hoylman's then employer, the Partnership for New York City.