Vacca Watch: Pre-Bike Hearing Chatter Between Transpo Chair Staffer, NBBL

City Council Transportation Committee chair James Vacca has made headlines for his inquisitorial hearings on DOT’s bike and plaza programs. And it looks like his office was batting around ideas with street safety opponents before the first of those hearings last December.

Image: CBS 2

Email correspondence obtained by Streetsblog from Marty Markowitz’s office indicates that a Vacca staff member was in contact with the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” in the lead-up to the December bike hearing.

According to the document, a staffer in Vacca’s office sent Louise Hainline, the president of NBBL, a link to this Richard Lipsky blog post in October. (Lipsky is the disgraced lobbyist caught up in the Carl Kruger corruption scandal who worked to foil congestion pricing in 2008 and became a vocal yet mostly-ignored critic of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.) The post, a line-by-line commentary on a Steve Cuozzo column written in the wake of October’s dueling rallies over the Prospect Park West bike lane, is standard-issue bikelash fare. But toward the end Lipsky issues this plea: “Calling CM Jimmy Vacca-the council’s sagacious chair of the council’s transportation committee. Can we get some oversight Jimmy?”

After receiving the link from Vacca’s office, Hainline sent it around to a group of core NBBL members and allies, including three employees at the Brooklyn borough president’s office, Gibson Dunn attorney Jim Walden, and Jessica Schumer, the daughter of Senator Chuck Schumer and former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall.

Vacca held the bike hearing on December 9. His office told Streetsblog ahead of time that they expected the Prospect Park West bike lane to come up in testimony, and when the hearing rolled around, PPW opponents including Marty Markowitz and NBBL member Norman Steisel did receive an inordinate amount of attention.

We don’t know who in Vacca’s office sent the Lipsky rant to Hainline, or in what context. Streetsblog has a freedom of information request pending with Vacca’s office for correspondence related to the December hearing. Vacca spokesperson Bret Collazzi sent the following statement in response to inquiries about the October email and the relationship between Vacca, Lipsky, and NBBL:

Our office is in the final stages of responding to a Freedom of Information Law request from Streetsblog that covers all communications related to the Prospect Park West bike lane. Until that process is complete, I cannot accurately answer your questions. What I can say is that the New York City Council Transportation Committee does not convene oversight hearings on the basis of blog posts or neighborhood-specific complaints. Our Committee convenes oversight hearings when Chairman Vacca feels an issue has risen to a level of citywide importance and warrants additional public discussion. I think there’s little doubt that bicycling in New York City met those criteria.

  • fdr

    How is this different from DOT “collaborating” with Aaron Naparstek? And now Chuck and Iris’s daughter is involved too?

  • fdr

    How is this different from DOT “collaborating” with Aaron Naparstek? And now Chuck and Iris’s daughter is involved too?

  • Shemp

    Vacca Watch – Yes!

  • Gibby Dunn

    Will Jim Walden call for Jimmy Vacca to step down from his position until this matter is investigated and resolved?

  • J

    I just checked, and the case is still scheduled for a hearing on May 18th. Hopefully, on that day, this will finally be put to rest.

  • Smug g.

    Markowitz and Steisel received an “inordinate amount of attention” at a City Council committee hearing??? Are you savvy and over-educated New Yorkers too clueless to know that elected officials and former commissioners get preferential treatment at governmental hearings? Haven’t you ever noticed that anytime a politician visits a community board meeting or testifies at hearings like those, for example, convened by the MTA over service cuts and fare hikes that they get to jump the line and exceed established time constraints? Is this really a shocker to you? This is how it works. Politicians and ex-officials get preferential treatment. They have clout that positions their opinions at higher value than those of non-connected people. There’s no conspiracy to jump the line, it is the culture of politics. Elected officials don’t wait. It is the courtesy government officials extend each other. Vacca’s decision to let that Borough President and former Deputy Mayor kick things off is not an endorsement of their respective positions. Just S.O.P.

  • Pete

    Just because it’s standard operating procedure doesn’t make it right. And disclosing politician’s connections and biases is part of the beauty of FOIA acts.

  • Information such as this may not be shocking, but it belies the Walden-perpetrated notion that DOT, by exchanging emails with radical EBL lobbyists, acted in a way that’s beyond the pale.

    If a senator’s daughter, a Brooklyn College dean, a former deputy mayor, and other influentials are cc’d on an email from the Transportation Committee chair’s office, I’d say that makes a DOT staffer having a beer with a concerned neighborhood activist seem cute in comparison.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, it will probably take a couple of months before the judge renders a decision.

  • Dork

    That’s a good question. Why not ask it to Jim Walden and his various press contacts.

  • Tom

    This issue is getting tiresome so allow me to add something.  I was one of the first to enter the CC hearing room on December 9th.  I didn’t pull rank or jump any line; I only followed directions to the room given by CC employees.
    I had no intention of speaking.  I sat in the front row opposite where the committee members would sit.  To my left was a member of Brooklyn Community Board 10 who was there to advocate for biking(we talked while waiting).  To my right was a woman I did not know.  We had all three entered the room at the same time.
    Shortly after the room filled up Norman Steisel entered and the woman to my right surrendered her seat to him, and left.  I assume she was a ‘placeholder’ for him, and also signed him up to speak.  
    I did not register to speak so I don’t know who would speak after the Commissioner.  She would be the lead-off ‘witness’, invited by the chairman of the committee.
    A publicly-elected official speaks at their convenience because they represent a constituency.  The courtesy shown is in effect to the constituency, not really to the individual.
    At a prior committee meeting I attended a high-ranking uniformed official from the NYDS was the invited witness and he came in and sat down at the witness table.  However, he was politely ‘bumped back’ to sit next to me because at the last minute another BP came to deliver comments on the NYDS testimony which had not yet been put in the record.  Again, courtesy and convenience was extended.  No one complained.

  • Tom,

    Perplexed I’m that you find this issue tiresome, but bore the unwarranted delay at the hearing with such good grace.  The “courtesy” extended to Steisel, Hainline and Carswell not only included giving them priority in time (they did not have to wait in line like the rest of use) but also giving them each far more than the 2 minutes that the other members of the public were allotted, as well as the opportunity to speak as a sort of triumvirate, who could field questions as a group.  Compare the situation of the 13 year old boy who waited hours to testify in favor of bike lanes immediately after, and sitting right next to, Nancy Gruskin, whose husband was killed in a collision with a wrong-way delivery cyclist.  Not exactly an equal forum.
    And who exactly is the “constituency” that Steisel, Hainline and Carswell were testifying on behalf of?  None of the them are elected officials and they are members of a tiny and secretive club based primarily on one street in Brooklyn.  The fact that Steisel was once appointed a Deputy Mayor means he speaks for a “constituency” for the rest of his life, and so should always receive preference in public speaking situations?  Give me a break.

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