Li’s leadership at C.B. 3 wasn’t biased, B.P. finds; Redacted report released

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Gigi Li, the chairperson of Community Board 3, did not demonstrate a pattern of failing to appoint black or Latino members to leadership positions on the board during her first year as chairperson.

Nevertheless, Li and the board’s leadership “failed to sufficiently emphasize the value of diversity and inclusion.”

Those were the findings of an Equal Employment Opportunity investigation by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office.

Through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, The Villager obtained a copy of the E.E.O. investigation final report. Yet, marked “Confidential,” it was extremely heavily redacted, to the point where the “3” was blotted out in each and every reference to Community Board 3, as were all persons’ names — and frequently even any pronouns, too, such as “she” and “her,” that might help identify an individual via gender.

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(Hover mouse over or tap on image, above, to flip through report.)

In addition, the borough president’s office dragged its feet a bit in releasing the documents within the required time frame — taking more than a month too long — with a spokesperson repeatedly explaining that it was a “sensitive” situation.

The investigation was sparked by a complaint by Ayo Harrington, an African-American member of C.B. 3, who charged that Li, who is Asian-American, had refused Harrington’s request to appoint her chairperson of the board’s Health, Seniors and Human Services / Youth, Education and Human Rights Committee when the position became open.

Harrington further charged that two other board members — one of whom is African-American — asked to jointly co-chair that same committee but were also rejected by Li, who responded that C.B. 3’s bylaws do not allow for committee co-chairpersons.

According to the report, Harrington filed her complaint with the B.P.’s office in late April of last year. (Harrington, however, told The Villager she didn’t actually file the complaint, but that Brewer’s office launched the investigation independently after The Villager published a letter by Harrington, in which she made the accusation.)

As part of the investigation, interviews were subsequently conducted with Harrington and Li, as well as with “witnesses,” including possibly at least one other C.B. 3 member and apparently Susan Stetzer, the board’s district manager.

By August, Brewer’s office had finished the probe, and letters regarding its findings were sent to Li and Harrington.

The reason why the final report, as well as the letters to Li and Harrington — copies of which were also provided to The Villager — were all so heavily redacted is because the accusation was ultimately found to be “unsubstantiated,” according to the borough president’s office.

“The complaint that [redacted name] declined to appoint you or [redacted name] as [redacted] Committee chair on the basis of race or color was not substantiated by the E.E.O. Officers’ investigation,” the letter to Harrington, as redacted for The Villager, says.

The letters do conclude by stating, however, that the borough president — who appoints community board members — recommended four “remedial actions.” These measures are delineated by four bullet points, though, again, are completely redacted, leaving only the bullet points showing.

The first page of a heavily redacted letter from the Manhattan borough president’s office to C.B. 3 member Ayo Harrington, notifying her that E.E.O. investigators found her complaint against Chairperson Gigi Li to be unsubstantiated. Three of four recommended “remedial actions” are shown blacked out; a fourth is on the letter’s second page and is also completely obscured.

The first page of a heavily redacted letter from the Manhattan borough president’s office to C.B. 3 member Ayo Harrington, notifying her that E.E.O. investigators found her complaint against Chairperson Gigi Li to be unsubstantiated. Three of four recommended “remedial actions” are shown blacked out; a fourth is on the letter’s second page and is also completely obscured.

(According to a source who requested anonymity, and who tipped The Villager off that the investigation had been concluded, Brewer recommended that both Li and Stetzer undergo E.E.O. training.)

Reading between the redactions, the investigators found that Li neither had made enough appointments — she had made six up to that point — nor chaired the board long enough, to have established a “consistent pattern” of failing to put qualified black and Latino members in leadership positions.

Again, reading between the redactions, Li told the investigators that she made appointments based on individuals’ qualifications, and that “race was never a factor in any of her decisions.” Rather, Li said, she “relies on outgoing committee, subcommittee and task force chairpersons to make recommendations for new chairpersons.”

Li added that, in the case of one of the committee chairperson hopefuls whom she rejected — again, the name is redacted — Li had received reports that this individual had demonstrated “disruptive behavior at [full board] meetings and committee meetings,” and so Li “felt that the behavior would not fit in very well.”

Of the two other board members who Li snubbed for top spots, she explained that “neither had taken any leadership initiative during the time that they had been on the board.”

Again, this is reading between the redactions and filling in the blanks.

Neither Li nor Harrington would comment to The Villager regarding the substance of the final report or the recommendations because the investigation was deemed confidential by Brewer’s office.

In fact, Brewer’s office — even though providing the final report and the two letters to The Villager — would not confirm that any of the above individuals were questioned, or for that matter, that there had been any investigation at all.

After receiving the majorly redacted materials, The Villager requested that Brewer’s office provide a less heavily crossed-out copy of the report — and specifically pressed to find out what the four “remedial actions” were. But Brewer’s office would not budge.

In a Dec. 28 letter to The Villager, Adele Bartlett, Brewer’s FOIL officer, wrote, in part, “[T]he Office of the Borough President has at all times declined to confirm or deny the identity of any parties to any Equal Employment complaint, and our response to your request can in no way be interpreted as confirming the identify of any party involved.

“The extensive redaction was necessary and proper pursuant to Equal Employment Policy of this Office, as well as the Equal Employment Policy of the City of New York, to protect the identity of the parties to an unsubstantiated discrimination claim.”

Bartlett recommended contacting the borough president’s FOIL appeals officer, James Caras.

In response to the newspaper’s appeal seeking a reduction of the redactions, Caras responded on Jan. 6 that, under the Public Officers Law, to do so would represent an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” since there were no findings of misconduct or disciplinary action.

In a brief phone interview, Caras added that all E.E.O. complaints are taken extremely seriously because there could be liability involved for the city — plus, it’s something Brewer personally takes very seriously. If the complaint had, in fact, been substantiated, more information would have been divulged, he said.

In a phone interview, Harrington said, “All I’m prepared to say is, the result of my concern has resulted in a board that is more reflective — as in one African-American being appointed the ad hoc Nominating Committee chairperson [heading the temporary committee that recommended candidates for last June’s board elections, in which Li was re-elected C.B. 3 chairperson] and three other African-Americans being appointed to leadership positions.”

Indeed, in November, Alysha Lewis-Coleman was appointed the second vice chairperson of the C.B. 3 Executive Committee, while Vaylateena Jones was named chairperson of the Health, Seniors and Human Services Committee, and Lisa Burriss was tapped to chair the newly formed Public Housing Subcommittee.

Harrington added, “I’m also very hopeful because the borough president has created so many opportunities for community board members — and their staff — to take Leadership in Diversity and E.E.O. training.”

As she spoke, Harrington noticeably emphasized the word “staff.”

All city employees — including community board staff — must take E.E.O. training, and board staff must also take Leadership in Diversity training, according to Brewer’s office.

As opposed to paid community board staff, such as a district manager, community board members — including board chairpersons — are not city employees but volunteers.

However, Caras said, “We’re highly encouraging all community board members to participate [in E.E.O. training] as well.”

Similarly, Bartlett said, “the new thing” being pushed by Brewer is that community board members are being urged to take an E.E.O. and Leadership in Diversity “training series.” These sessions are relatively brief, done over a few days.

Asked if one of the recommended “remedial actions” in the letter sent to her at the investigation’s conclusion was that she undergo E.E.O. standard non-discrimination training, Li told The Villager, “I cannot speak to the Manhattan borough president’s investigation or its results. The Manhattan borough president’s office encouraged all board chairpersons and board members to attend both the E.E.O. training, as well as the Leadership in Diversity training. Many C.B. 3 board members attended those trainings, myself included.”

She added, “I continue to make leadership appointments based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to knowledge related to committee area, ability to work well with others, and diversity in representation.”

Stetzer, when asked if the report recommended that she, too, take E.E.O. training, responded, “Somebody told you wrong.”

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