The Department of Transportation has made it a de facto policy not to implement major changes to the streets without a favorable vote from the local community board. The idea is to defer to a group perceived as representing the will of the entire neighborhood.
But these bodies are only as representative as the borough president and local City Council members want them to be, as shown by the dismissal of Bob Cassara, the Brooklyn Community Board 10 member who led the fight for a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway.
Council Member Vincent Gentile decided not to re-appoint Cassara for another two-year term on the community board in late May, according to his spokesperson Dena Libner. She confirmed that Cassara was the only board member not to be re-appointed this year, though half of the fifty members’ terms were up.
Gentile’s decision to boot Cassara from the board was first reported in the Brooklyn Eagle. The Eagle drew the connection between Cassara’s dismissal and his strong push for the bike lane at the community board and in the press. (Speaking to the press can be dangerous for community board members, as former Brooklyn CB 1 transportation committee chair Teresa Toro learned when she was temporarily ousted from her position in 2008.) Gentile had been a top opponent of the Bay Ridge Parkway lane, working with his colleague Domenic Recchia and Assembly Members Peter Abbate and Alec Brook-Krasny to scuttle DOT’s plans to stripe it.
In her first statement on why Cassara was removed, Libner told the Eagle: “As many people as possible should have the chance to help shape our neighborhood’s future and welcoming new members onto the community board is the best way to achieve that.”
Bringing fresh voices onto community boards is a noble goal, but not one that would justify removing Cassara.
He’d served on the board for eight years, Libner told Streetsblog. But Cassara said that many of his colleagues on the community board had been there at least as far back as 1995, when he first started working with the board on reducing truck traffic. We have a request in with Community Board 10 to see how long each board member has served but have not received a response.
Cassara also noted that while there are plenty of board members who miss meetings or leave early, “I’ve missed one meeting since I was appointed.” The idea that Gentile replaced Cassara, and only Cassara, in order to shake up an ossified community board simply doesn’t hold water.
That would lend credence to the Eagle’s theory that Cassara’s high-profile advocacy for the bike lane led to his dismissal. “I must have done something,” Cassara said to Streetsblog.
Libner, however, categorically denied that Gentile’s removal of Cassara was related to his bike lane support. “If anything, Bob’s advocacy and conviction deserves our admiration,” she said.
Libner went further, saying that Gentile had no interest in imposing his opinions on bike lanes on the community board. Said Libner, “Had CB10 and the community at large been supportive of it, Councilman Gentile would have supported its installation and done everything he could to facilitate it.” She also claimed that Gentile was not anti-bicycle, noting his sponsorship of a bill to turn traffic lights in parks to blinking yellows during car-free hours. “What [Gentile] is opposed to,” said Libner, “is city agencies’ regular refusal to defer to local expertise and preferences.”
But at the last CB 10 meeting on the project, where several board members raised concerns about the traffic and safety impacts of a project that will slow down vehicle speeds and won’t remove any travel lanes, many board members’ “expertise” on street safety came across as threadbare. By removing Cassara, Gentile has ousted one person who was committed to explaining subjects like traffic calming and bike lanes to his fellow board members.
And Libner’s answer still raises the question of just why Cassara was taken off the board. On that, she was silent.
According to a CB10 member who wished to remain anonymous, the bike lane was one of several contentious issues between Cassara and local politicians. Given Gentile’s reticence to cite any point of disagreement, it’s hard not to assume that the most visible recent conflict between him and Cassara, the Bay Ridge Parkway bike lane, played a part in Cassara’s ouster.
Gentile’s decision not to reappoint Cassara has removed a strong voice for street safety from Community Board 10 and may have a chilling effect on those who remain on the board. Community boards can be important forums for local-level debate, but not if elected officials remove those who publicly disagree with them.