Queens’s Next Top Prosecutor Faces Test as Calls for Board Member’s Removal Grow
Beep Melinda Katz dodges questions on whether she'll boot her appointee who said pedestrians ‘deserve’ to die.
Mayor de Blasio has rebuked Kim Ohanian — the Queens community board member and city employee who said at a public meeting that pedestrians “deserve” to die if they cross the street while looking at their phones — saying her comments warranted an investigation and her possible termination.
Queens elected officials, safe-streets advocates, and a petition drive have demanded Ohanian’s prompt removal from the public panel where she made the disturbing remarks.
So why is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz — who would prosecute reckless drivers as the borough’s likely next district attorney — refusing to say whether she’ll boot Ohanian, Katz’s hand-picked appointee to Community Board 7?
Katz — who can remove Ohanian from the unpaid post — has dodged multiple requests for comment in the teeth of the mounting criticism.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate [and] we’re going to look into who that employee is and whatever appropriate disciplinary measures can be taken,” de Blasio said about Ohanion on July 19, during an unrelated press conference, noting that he had not seen the video of Ohanian’s comments, but had heard about it.
Nobody deserves to die for choosing to walk or cycle instead of drive. I'm calling on @MelindaKatz to immediately remove this dangerously out-of-touch person from their community board and reform the process for making our streets safer. https://t.co/Y8D3O6GKMU
— Eric Butler (@codebutler) July 23, 2019
Ohanian, who earns $115,000 working for the Department of Environmental Protection in addition to her unpaid position on the civic panel, made her comments at a public meeting in May about a Department of Transportation bike-lane proposal in her neighborhood, as she mocked Mayor de Blasio’s signature Vision Zero initiative.
“I gotta be honest with ya, Vision Zero is a joke. I’ve watched people cross the street while they’re still talking on their damn phones. You know what, they deserve to get run over,” she said.
A video of Ohanian’s comments surfaced on Twitter two months later and quickly made the rounds in the media, prompting safe-street advocates to call for the long-time member’s firing from the board.
Kim Ohanian, a Community Board member, is seen here having a public meltdown, largely in part because of DOT plans to put a bike lane along the street on which she lives. She should be removed from the Community Board for these comments. https://t.co/4ZcLLultbC
— Second Ave. Sagas (@2AvSagas) July 17, 2019
Katz’s glaring silence on Ohanian comes after some bad moves on street safety on her part. In 2016, Katz tried to kill the life-saving Queens Boulevard bike lane, the last phase of which sits stalled amid what appears to be political horse trading over a jail in the same neighborhood.
But Katz, who declined an interview with Streestblog in June about her campaign to become Queen’s top prosecutor, said in a statement that she will “absolutely prioritize creating safer streets and prosecuting traffic violence,” and that her life has been shaped by the death of her mother, who was killed by a drunk driver when Katz was three years old.
“I grew up knowing the impact that one mistake on the road can have on someone’s life and the lives of those close to them. My lived experience has always made street safety a top priority of mine,” Katz said in a statement.
But if street safety is a top priority, why has she remained mum on the issue?
Katz’s Queens colleagues, who are vying for her seat as borough president now that she’s declared victory against public defender Tiffany Cabán following a contentious recount, are speaking out.
Queens Council Members Costa Constantinides, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Donovan Richards, and former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, all said on Twitter that they’d either boot Ohanian from the board or wouldn’t reappoint her. Queens Council Member Paul Vallone did not respond.
“Disgraceful. I would not reappoint. Saying people deserve to be run over by cars merits removal in my book,” Van Bramer tweeted.
. @Costa4NY @DRichards13 @ElizCrowleyNYC @JimmyVanBramer @PaulVallone As candidates for Queens BP, do you plan to reappoint Ohanian? What do you think of her comments? Should she be removed? https://t.co/QBDl5gNmuI
— Diedrich vanVlissingen (@VlissingenVan) July 19, 2019
Flushing Council Member Peter Koo — whose district is one of the most dangerous places to walk in Queens, thanks to six fatalities in the last 12 months — sat silently next to Ohanian as she undermined de Blasio’s mission to make streets safer.
He later told Streetsblog that her comments were “careless, inappropriate, and callous,” especially in light of all of the fatal and serious-injury crashes, but said it is the board’s decision whether to remove Ohanian.
In just a year, from last July until today, Community Board 7 racked up a total of 6,566 crashes, resulting in six pedestrians deaths, 324 pedestrian injuries and 84 cyclist injuries.
Community boards are governed by the city’s Law Department, which says that members can be “removed, for cause, either by (1) the Borough President or, (2) a majority vote of the Board, both requiring due process.”
But each board is also free to write its own individuals bylaws, which may offer a more detailed process for removing a board member, according to a spokeswoman for the law department.
Community Board 7, which also has not commented publicly on the incident, insisted that Streetsblog file a freedom of information request in order to receive a copy of its bylaws. We did so and are waiting to hear back.
Katz can boot Ohanian off the board, or could decline to reappoint her — a precedent that’s was set by Brooklyn Council Member Laurie Cumbo, when she removed safe-streets advocate Hilda Cohen from a local board after only three years, apparently because Cohen defied Cumbo over bike lanes.
The Department of Environmental Protection confirmed on July 19 that Ohanian’s comments were “under investigation” — but has not responded since on the status of the investigation or what exactly it entails.
Ohanian has not responded to multiple requests for comment.