CB7 Members' Bike Lane Vote Questioned

| 16 Feb 2016 | 11:21

The head of an Upper West Side block association has questioned the voting process of Community Board 7’s ultimate approval of a contentious Amsterdam Avenue bicycle-lane proposal.

Joseph Bolanos, the president of the West 76th Park Block Association, said that two members of the board who voted in favor of the plan, Howard Yaruss and Ken Coughlin, should have disclosed their affiliation with Transportation Alternatives, a bike advocacy group, and abstained from voting.

The Department of Transportation’s proposal to install protected bike lanes from West 72nd to West 110th Street, remove a car lane and make other traffic changes passed 28 to 13, with two abstentions on Feb. 2.

Yaruss and Coughlin both sit on the board of directors of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit whose mission is “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile” and promote biking, walking and public transit, according to their website.

Bolanos, who has lived on West 76th Street for about 40 years, compared their support to that of a real estate developer voting on a development project involving his company. He called the voting process “horrible and broken.”

Community Board 7’s bylaws state that members with a business or financial interest in a matter that the board is voting on shall recuse himself or herself from voting on that issue. The bylaws also note that members “shall not be instructed by, or responsible to, any other organization with which they may be affiliated or to any elected official.”

They also say that board members who are officers, directors or employees of “an organization having a matter before the Board, where the Member has discretionary decision-making responsibilities for that organization shall disclose his/her relationship with said organization before speaking or, if not speaking before voting on that matter.”

According to a Transportation Alternatives blog post the day after the vote, about 250 TransAlt members and activists attended the meeting at the Goddard Riverside Community Center, including dozens who were told to leave the building because the number of people trying to squeeze into the conference room exceeded fire code regulations.

Before the meeting, TransAlt representatives handed out stickers in support of the proposal while others held TransAlt signs inscribed “Safety is the #1 Priority.”

The board’s chairwoman, Elizabeth Caputo, declined to comment specifically on Bolanos’ claim but did say that the board took care to ensure a fair and meaningful meeting regarding a divisive issue.

Caputo, though, opened a December 2013 board meeting at which the Amsterdam Avenue proposal was to be discussed by asking board members to disclose any affiliation with groups supporting any topic coming before the board.

The Manhattan Borough president, Gale Brewer, who appoints community board members, deferred the matter to the New York Conflict of Interest Board.

An advisory opinion from that board states that a member may not vote if they have a business or financial relationship with the organization with a matter before the board. They do not have guidelines for whether or not a member should disclose their affiliation with an organization for the sake of transparency if there is no financial stake.

Yaruss and Coughlin both said that they did not think there was any need to disclose their connection to Transportation Alternatives, with Yaruss saying that it was not necessary to disclose since there was not a conflict of interests but, rather, a “consistency of interests.”

“Everyone was aware I’m on the board of Transportation Alternatives,” he said. “I’m someone who advocates for safe streets.”

Coughlin, referencing the board’s by-laws, said that it was the Department of Transportation, not Transportation Alternatives, that had a matter before the board. He also stressed that board members may have been appointed to CB7 because of their ties with other organizations. Yaruss and Coughlin were affiliated with Transportation Alternatives prior to their respective appointments to CB7.

“There is no private vs. public interest,” Coughlin said. “It’s all about what I believe is best for the community.”