Mark-Viverito, Greenfield power struggle reveals politics of artifice in "progressive" City Council [Corrected]

BY LOUIS FLORES

For a brief time, New York City Councilmember David Greenfield (D-Bensonhurst) was suspended from his leadership posts in the municipal legislature.

The suspension was first made public in a report filed on Wednesday by Sarina Trangle for the news publication, City & State.

Councilmember Greenfield, chair of the City Council’s influential Land Use Committee, was described to be the target of the retributive act, given his opposition to proposed legislation to confine the activities of the horse carriage industry within Central Park, according to Ms. Trangle’s report.  Said to be in large part due to Councilmember Greenfield’s opposition to the measure, the proposed legislation lost critical support and was withdrawn from consideration before a scheduled vote by the municipal legislature, delivering an embarrassing political setback to both Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), who supported that bill.

In Ms. Trangle’s report, Councilmember Greenfield’s brief suspension was denied by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s office.

A request for an interview made by Progress Queens to the office of Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was not answered.  Similarly, the office of Councilmember Greenfield did not answer a request for an interview about the contretemps.

In a report filed by Gloria Pazmino for POLITICO New York, Council Speaker Mark-Viveirto's action against Councilmember Greenfield was described as possibly creating political uncertainty around the passage of twin rezoning proposals favoured by both Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Mayor de Blasio.  As chair of the City Council Land Use Committee, Councilmember Greenfield would be able to exert tremendous influence over the success or failure of controversial rezoning proposals that many groups say will unleash a new wave of gentrification across the five boroughs.

Last week's discord between the two belied the close political alliance the two municipal legislative leaders had forged.  Councilmember Greenfield was a key Brooklyn supporter in Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s speakership campaign, observed Erin Durkin in a report she filed for The New York Daily News, ushering in muscular support for a “progressive agenda” noted The New York Times, even as the speakership campaign later came to be fined for having violated conflicts of interest rules.  In return for his political support, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito named Councilmember Greenfield as chair of the powerful Land Use Committee, rewarding him with a rich stipend that accompanies the leadership post.

After two years of tightly controlling the City Council’s direction, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito faced new questions about her commitment to progressivism in the wake of her kerfuffle with Councilmember Greenfield.

Michael D.D. White, a civic activist and member of the community group, Citizens Defending Libraries, told Progress Queens that Councilmember Greenfield’s management style has ridden roughshod over grassroots efforts to have a say about what community facilities voters want in their communities.

During one Council hearing, Mr. White said that Councilmember Greenfield deliberately managed the public testimony portion to make it difficult for key community advocates to participate.*  The time for community members to sign-up to provide public testimony was abruptly cut short, and the order in which community advocates were called to testify was managed to skip over some key advocates, including Kent Barwick, a president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society of New York.  Councilmember Greenfield reportedly waited until after Mr. Barwick, a noted historic preservationist, took a break from the hearing before calling for him to testify and later refusing to allow Mr. Barwick an opportunity to testify when he returned.

Ultimately, the City Council voted to approve the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to The Hudson Companies, a real estate developer with close ties to the de Blasio administration, representing the latest example a continuous effort by the de Blasio-Mark-Viverito administrations to sell strategic public assets to private corporations.  That sale has come under scrutiny, because it was revealed that The Hudson Companies did not offer the best price for the property, and The Hudson Companies has promised to build affordable housing off-site in a move that will short-change Brooklyn Heights of much-needed affordable apartments, according to a report filed by the journalist Aaron Short for The New York Post.  Questions about favouritism in selecting The Hudson Companies have been made, given that David Kramer, the CEO of The Hudson Companies, is a friend and fundraiser for Mayor de Blasio.

A pattern and practise of City Council legislative acts that are in contravention to progressivism

Of the City Council’s endless efforts to spin itself as an outpost in a new wave of progressivism, Mr. White said he was skeptical.

“Yes, they are flying a progressive flag, but they are making hand-offs to the real estate industry, even if that involves corrupting public processes,” Mr. White said.

When the full City Council voted to approve the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, Councilmember Greenfield improbably defended the sale of the key community asset by saying, “This may be one of the best deals that we’ve ever had,” according to a report filed by Mary Frost for The Brooklyn Eagle.

The online real estate news publication, The Real Deal, described Councilmember Greenfield as “in sync” with the conservative Real Estate Board of New York “in criticizing the extensive landmarking of historic districts” that took place during the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York), which they viewed as impediments to efforts to foster more and more real estate development.

As previously reported by Progress Queens, the city approved the sale of a portfolio of project-based, Section 8 apartment buildings to politically-connected real estate developers by side-stepping requirements in Section 197-c of the City Charter that the disposition of city real property should be subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP process.

Other makeshift efforts by the City Council to appear progressive, like its flirtation with participatory budgeting, in which Councilmember Greenfield also engages, is also coming under scrutiny.  Limited to approximately $30 million of the city’s $80 billion budget, advocates for increasing direct democratic participation in government describe the participatory budget process as “an eye wash” and “a lot of theatrics.”

Saying of City Councilmembers, Mr. White said, “What they should be doing is talking about how much money is going into real estate development deals,” noting that questions surround how much taxpayers will really net from the nominal $52 million price tag for the Brooklyn Heights library branch.  Even if taken at face value, the library branch’s sale price exceeds the small fraction of the city budget for which the public is allowed to vote, and yet, community demands for either restoring overall library funding or preserving existing library infrastructure are not heard. 

The report of Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s retaliatory motive against Councilmember Greenfiled marks the fourth such response against independent-minded City Council figures.  In February 2015, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park) was stripped of his leadership post after he questioned aspects of a real estate development deal at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.  In September 2014, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was reportedly behind the firing of City Council staffer Artyom Matusov, who blew the whistle on possibly false testimony provided by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton.  And in August 2014, a faction of Councilmembers aligned with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito threatened to lockout Councilmembers from a process to nominate a commissioner to the New York City Board of Elections if any Councilmembers were caught leaking information about the backroom negotiations to the press.

Contrary to Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s self-anointment as a progressive leader, she further triggered backlash from groups to her political left when she supported expanding the NYPD by over 1,000 new officers in 2015, a move that was seen as being tone deaf to a nation-wide grassroots social movement demanding greater police accountability for official misconduct.

*  Correction :  The City Council hearing at which Councilmember Greenfield made it difficult for the public to participate was not about the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.  Instead, it was about changing procedures at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.