Help Streetsblog Tell the Political Story Behind the Prospect Park West Fight

There are many things we still don't know about the involvement of former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel in efforts to erase the Prospect Park West bike lane and undermine the city's street safety policies.

Thanks to some rescheduling, we’ve got nearly two months until the first court hearing on the Prospect Park West lawsuit. Flimsy as the plaintiffs’ case may be, they now have a long time to run their smear campaign against DOT and the neighborhood advocates who put in years of organizing to make this street safer.

So we’re probably going to be seeing more of Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden in the media — he’s quite skilled at getting the papers to reprint his arguments, no matter how scurrilous. And the more we hear from Jim, the less we seem to read about the political maneuvering his clients have engaged in to erase a project that enjoys broad support and has slowed speeders while opening up a neighborhood street for all-ages cycling.

Which is too bad, because there are an awful lot of public figures connected to this campaign to erase a single bike lane. Think of the political story that will eventually be written. It involves City Council members, a borough president, former deputy mayors, a former federal prosecutor and top candidate for U.S. Attorney, a former transportation commissioner, a sitting U.S. Senator, and maybe a certain political correspondent at CBS2.

We’d like to find out more about the connections between all these players, and we’re not going to find out by calling them up and asking politely. Here’s what we’ve been up to…

At the beginning of February, Streetsblog sent a freedom of information request to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office, asking for his staff’s communications about the Prospect Park West project. The request was delivered on February 8, according to the U.S. Postal Service, but when we later checked in with Markowitz’s office, they told us they never received it. Markowitz’s staff counsel asked us to email the request to him, which we did. He then said he’d let us know by March 16 if the request would be granted. We’re still waiting to hear back on that one.

Streetsblog needs some muscle behind this FOIL request if we’re going to get any information out of it. So we’ve hired attorney Steve Vaccaro of Rankin & Taylor to manage the process. We’re not getting pro bono assistance on this one, and our budget doesn’t usually include a line for FOIL-related legal expenses, so if you can contribute to Streetsblog this spring, it will help us see this important reporting project through to completion.

In addition to Markowitz, Streetsblog is seeking information about PPW-related political activity from Iris Weinshall and Louise Hainline, both prominent members of the bike lane opposition and high-level employees at the City University of New York who are subject to the state’s freedom of information law. We are also FOILing Hainline’s husband, CUNY professor Micha Tomkiewicz, who has been closely involved in the opposition, and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, to learn more about lobbying that preceded last year’s bike policy hearing, where PPW opponents received an inordinate amount of attention.

Streetsblog is interested in gleaning information from these FOIL requests to help fill in some of the big gaps in the political backstory surrounding the Prospect Park West project, the attempt to eradicate it, and the smear campaign aimed at the people who requested, planned and supported it.

There’s a lot of information out there still to be uncovered. We know Senator Chuck Schumer has had words with City Council members, asking what they’re going to do about the Prospect Park West bike lane (and other bike lanes), but we don’t have any details about whom Schumer tried to influence or how.

We know that Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel — a guy who used to run City Hall — had sit-downs with City Council members before last December’s committee hearing on bike policy, but we don’t know how they managed to get so much camera time for Steisel before anyone else got to testify.

We know that bike lane opponents have managed to get free services from a very expensive litigator at a politically-connected white shoe law firm, but it’s never really been explained why Jim Walden took this case pro bono, unless you believe that suing the city to undo a popular and effective street safety project is really an exercise in “good government litigation.”

These are some of the questions we hope to answer when people disclose the information we’ve requested. If you’re fed up with watching the city’s program to promote cycling and prevent traffic deaths and injuries get bogged down in the fight over a single project on a single street, I hope you’ll support this work and contribute to Streetsblog. We believe that telling the political story behind the Prospect Park West fight will have implications not just for this project, but for street safety improvements all over the city.

  • Suzanne

    I’m in the hole, financially speaking, but will be contributing both the StreetsBlog and TransAlt’s public relations work. I can’t believe millionaires and politicians get top flight lawyers free while non-profits have to pay, but there’s democracy for you…

  • Bolwerk

    Schumer is worse than Weiner. Both should just move to Washington, where they can spread the harm they cause out across the whole country, rather than focusing it on New York City.

  • Matthew Kime

    I’m happy to donate to streetsblog and this particular project. i hope others will join me so we can have a substantial impact.

  • J

    The emails from DOT and the so-called ‘bike lobby’ were relatively easy to obtain by NBBL. It’s sad but not surprising that Markowitzès office ‘lost’ the FOIL request, even with postal service proof that they received it. Clearly they have something to hide.

  • urbanis

    It’s disgusting and disheartening to see such a blatant abuse of power–a few wealthy, extremely well-connected political insiders orchestrating both an up-front and behind-closed-doors battle to kill a grass-roots initiative that has brought so many benefits to its community. It’s hard to believe a sweet little bike lane could come under so much fire.

  • krstrois

    Just donated — cannot deal with how this story is being told in the mainstream press. Go guys, go!

  • krstrois

    Just donated — cannot deal with how this story is being told in the mainstream press. Go guys, go!

  • Myrtle Guy

    I hope you foiled Schumer, too.

  • We’d like to FOIL Schumer but it turns out that Senators are exempt from the federal freedom of information law. State legislators are likewise exempt from the state law. That’s why the people we’ve FOILed are city-level electeds and public employees.

    It’s great to see these donations rolling in. Thanks to everyone who’s giving — it’s going to be a big help to us in this project.

  • Albert

    Just sent you a donation. I consider it pro-bono.

  • lolcat

    Why the Weiner hate? He is better than 95-99% of federal politicians out there (obvs. that’s not saying much…) It has been well documented the Bike Lane comment was not serious

  • Alon Levy

    Dude, Weiner is very liberal on issues that aren’t specifically urban.

  • Felix

    Hell, yeah, I’ll contribute!

  • mike

    Ben, Noah, this is exactly why I read Streetsblog. More of this please! And yes, my extra donation will be forthcoming.

    Go get ’em!

  • Albert

    Lolcat, it’s more than bike lanes. Weiner boosted his career by very publicly trashing congestion pricing, using the opportunity to demonize commercial trucks doing the city’s business as being the main source of traffic congestion rather than private vehicles that produce nothing other than pollution & congestion. I’d say he’s not “better than 95-99% of federal politicians out there” — he’s the same.

  • Albert

    Oops, should’ve posted that as a reply to Bolwerk. Hey Ben, can you move it?

  • Albert

    Lolcat, it’s more than bike lanes. Weiner boosted his career by very publicly trashing congestion pricing, using the opportunity to demonize commercial trucks doing the city’s business as being the main source of traffic congestion rather than private vehicles that produce nothing other than pollution & congestion. I’d say he’s not “better than 95-99% of federal politicians out there” — he’s the same.

  • tom

    Who do you have hacking into their cell-phone accounts? Ask Rupert Murdoch who he’s let go from News of the World. Nothing happening on climate change now. Got to be some hacker/spy with time out there for the cause.
    This harassment campaign is getting really weird–and dumb.

  • Tanya

    What have you got against DC? We don’t want our bike lanes to get sued!

  • What are you talking about?

  • Jeffdallen

    Iris Weinshall’s simple a jealous, miserable shrew. To think that someone younger, better looking and more media savvy could possibly get credit for doing something positive AND be recognized by the general public for doing so, is just too much for a dowdy, aging bureaucrat to handle. Get a life Iris! You should be ashamed of yourself!

  • r.s.

    i never would have thought Streetsblog would use tactics associated with the Wisconsin GOP – this sets a very dangerous precedent to start targeting professors just because they disagree with us and happen to work at public universities, especially when it doesn’t much to do with their “public capacity” – http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/25/959931/-Wisconsin-GOP-Seeks-UW-Professors-Email-After-Critical-Blog-Post. As a loyal reader and believer in safer streets I would urge you not to pursue this unsettling course.

  • Steve

    I’m assuming Streetsblog is only FOILing info related to Hainline’s role as NBBL president and any communication she’s had regarding the bike lane. Same with her husband. Streetsblog isn’t about to smear her if they find something totally unrelated to the case. Don’t put that above Jim Walden, however.

    They are not getting emails to expose someone’s liberalism or unrelated activism, as is happening in Wisconsin.

  • Anonymous

    This does give me pause, but there are big differences. Hainline and her husband’s advocacy against the PPW traffic calming/bike lane is totally unrelated to their academic fields so there is no issue of academic freedom here. And it is NBBL who raised the issue of advocates contacts with DOT in their lawsuit while they were apparently working the media and their political connections.

  • Anonymous

    Why do I have a feeling that the minute NBBL filed its lawsuit, Jim Walden told everyone involved to delete everything they had knowing that they’d probably get FOILed as well?

  • Fronko,

    Your suspicions may have a basis. But FOIL requires public officials to state in writing if records within the scope of a request cannot be produced because they were destroyed. Hardly a guarantee that bad conduct won’t happen, but something that should give the people responsible for responding to FOIL requests reason to pause.

  • Suzanne

    You’re totally offbase. I agree that academics are coming under pressure… because they’re exposing things the government doesn’t want exposed. Krugman just wrote an op ed on William Cronon and his Scholar Citizen blog, exposing “the role of the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council in pushing hard-line conservative legislation at the state level.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/28/opinion/28krugman.html?src=twrhp). This is COMPLETELY different from what StreetsBlog is doing. It’s more along the lines of people protesting John “The Torture Professor” Yoo for his instrumental role in legalizing the US’s use of torture.

    This isn’t about shutting down discourse. Far from it. If Hainline wants to join with a bunch of political insiders and rich people to undermine the democratic process, she should be called out on it. This isn’t a call for her resignation and she’s free to join in the discussion. In fact, bring it on! I’d love to see her try to justify her actions (her comments in New York Magaine were great for a laugh).

  • Brooklynite

    It should be noted that Jim Walden and his high-powered clients have FOIL’ed the Department of Transportation, Council member Brad Lander’s office and Community Board 6. Instead of spending their time serving the public, these offices are now spending many hours and tremendous resources to respond to these requests (while Marty Markowitz’s office illegally ignores Streetsblog’s FOIL).

    It should be noted that any communication or correspondence that a citizen has had with these offices regarding the Prospect Park West project may now be handed over to Jim Walden and friends for use in their ongoing media smear campaign. Though, I suppose this is legal, I find it somewhat chilling that my correspondence with my City Council member might somehow find its way into the newspaper via Jim Walden and his clients.

    I think Walden’s FOILing is clearly calculated to impose a chilling effect on local livable streets advocates. He is trying to make it seem like working with DOT, CB6 or your City Councilman to redesign a dangerous street is somehow improper or illegal. Walden and NBBL’s behavior is fundamentally un-democratic. This is a small, wealthy, powerful elite using bare-fisted legal tactics to get rid of a project that the larger community wants, likes and has approved in democratic and civic forums.

    I think Streetsblog is pursuing an important story and the FOIL’ing is entirely justified on that count alone. Additionally, if my City Council member, Community Board and DOT has to spend its time and resources responding to Gibson Dunn’s FOIL then I am also happy to see these guys spending their time and resources responding to Streetsblog’s FOIL. Iris Weinshall is a public employee with a $233,730/year salary. If she is using her public office to fight and oppose a bike lane on her block, that her community supports, that has made the street safer — we ought to know about that.

    My donation is forthcoming.

  • The principal objective of Streetsblog’s FOIL requests is to determine the extent of a sitting U.S. Senator’s involvement in an effort to circumvent the local planning process. The secondary objective is to determine how other political actors, including the borough president and a former deputy mayor, have used their clout and connections to influence elected officials and the media in relation to the Prospect Park West project.

    We have lots of circumstantial evidence suggesting a coordinated attempt by opponents of this single project to undermine policies that prevent traffic deaths and injuries citywide, but there is not much solid information out there. So we’re pursuing the best available means to get information that sheds light on these relationships.

    Unlike the Wisconsin GOP, we are trying to hold elected officials accountable. Academic research and correspondence between professors and students have nothing to do with it.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. So glad to read this. I will contribute in any way I can. This whole thing is so unbelievably smelly. The issue is far beyond the specifics of the bike lane, but really the about the vigorous effort to undermine a transparent, democratic, community process by a cadre of so called political “representatives.” Pulling the threads of this bike lane brouhaha could potentially reveal the connections among all sorts of characters within the city’s ruling class. People’s careers and reputations are potentially at stake, though, so expect them to pull out all the stops, ethical or otherwise, to protect their interests.

  • King C.

    In for $50.

  • The new term for ‘getting doored’ shold be changed to ‘getting Weinshalled’ to dishonor Iris Weinshall anti-bicycling, anti-democratic ways. Keep up the good work StreetsBlog.

  • Suzanne

    Ha! I’m in 🙂

    Let’s add “to schumer” for underhandedly opposing in real life what you profess to support to make yourself look good.

  • petersonny

    In for 50

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