C.B. 2 alcohol problem: Committee in ‘bar brawl’

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | There’s no doubt how Ed Gold, the late longtime Community Board 2 member, would have pegged this one: “It’s a real ‘Rashomon’!” he would have said, with a chortle.

“Rashomon,” the classic 1950 Kurosawa flick, features alternate versions of a samurai’s murder — as told by his wife, the bandit who ravished her, a woodcutter and the samurai as channeled through a medium.

Yet, in this particular “Rashomon” the setting was not a forest in medieval Japan, but the Church of St. Anthony of Padua basement, on Sullivan St., when the C.B. 2 State Liquor Authority Committee met there on Jan. 9. And the main characters are Tom Connor, a senior activist who was subsequently abruptly booted off the committee; Bob Ely, the committee’s co-chairperson; the other seven committee members, one of whom was willing to comment on the record for this article and three others who only spoke to The Villager off the record; and Terri Cude, the C.B. 2 chairperson, who was not at the meeting, but who reassigned Connor off of the committee.

In the background of the entire affair is the accusation, made by a prominent nightlife advocate, that C.B. 2 — which includes the Village, the Meatpacking District and Soho — is extremely “anti-nightlife.” More on that later. …

Tom Connor, an active member of the Village Independent Democrats political club, with Councilmember Carlina Rivera at last year’s V.I.D. Awards Gala. Rivera was a candidate for City Council at the time. Photo by Tequila Minsky

In a sushi roll — or rather a nutshell — on Jan. 9 the S.L.A. Committee was in what is known as executive session, at the meeting’s end, when the members deliberate on the positions that the committee will take on various bars’, clubs’ and restaurants’ applications for liquor licenses. The topic in this case was an application for a place called The Distillery.

‘Seeing similarities’

In his turn to speak, Connor said he saw some similarities between this application and another one that the full board of C.B. 2 had previously turned down for Zero Bond, a private members club in Noho. As a result, Connor said, he thought it would be appropriate for the committee to reconsider its previous recommendation on Zero Bond. (Ultimately, despite the C.B. 2 denial, the actual New York State Liquor Authority later did approve a liquor license for Zero Bond; community board recommendations are advisory only.)

“I think we have to be consistent,” Connor said. “I think we should give this place permission, and we should go back and revisit Zero Bond.”

Board 2 S.L.A. Committee Co-chairperson Bob Ely is a former Brooklyn A.D.A. and now a trial attorney at a private law firm.

Ely disagreed, calling a do-over on Zero Bond “inappropriate” and stressing that the committee should instead focus on the application that was before it that night.

What was really said

Connor persisted and claims that Ely then threatened him, “We’ll get you! We’ll get you!”

Connor, 86, admitted to The Villager that he finds it hard to hear clearly in the church’s basement due to its acoustics, plus he wears a hearing aid.

The newspaper was sent an audiotape of the exchange of words during the meeting by a committee member. The tape makes it clear that Ely, in fact, told Connor, albeit somewhat brusquely: “You want disagreement? You’ll get it, O.K.? You’ll get it.”

“Don’t threaten me,” Connor retorts on the recording.

Told by The Villager that the audiotape clearly shows Ely to be saying, “You want disagreement? You’ll get it,” not “We’ll get you,” Connor responded, “My recollection is he might have said both.”

Video inconclusive

In addition, a videotape of the exchange, apparently taken by someone in the audience, was shown to The Villager via Apple FaceTime; the newspaper was asked not to record what was shown during the FaceTime viewing.

In the video, Ely is shown standing in front of a table with his back to the audience, so that his facial expressions and hand gestures are basically hidden from the camera’s view. However, his body language does not appear particularly threatening. Meanwhile, Ely mostly blocks Connor from the camera’s view, since Connor is sitting on the direct opposite side of the table from him.

Connor accused Ely of leaning over the table and towering above him and shoving “a fist” in his face.

“Bob Ely jumped up, stood over me and put his hand in front of my face, and said, ‘We’ll get you,’” Connor told The Villager. “I mean, I am 86 years old, and he’s tall and active, and it was horrifying.”

Connor later said Ely poked “his hand…his finger” toward his face. At another point, he said, “This was the first time he leaned over me and put his fist in my face.”

However, asked if she saw Ely brandish a fist in Connor’s face, Elaine Young, a member of the S.L.A. Committee, told The Villager, “I don’t remember that at all.”

‘Bob likes to win’

“Bob likes to win on every issue,” Connor added. “He was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, and he acts like that all the time.”

Ely is currently a senior trial attorney at a private law firm. His speaking style, honed in the courts, is definitely no-nonsense and to the point.

Connor told the newspaper that he felt he had noticed “a pattern” on the committee’s part.

“They were really out to turn down most of the [liquor license] applications,” he said.

During his exchange with Connor at the January committee meeting, Ely denied any such pattern.

Connor said he was shaken up by how Ely spoke to him, and while subsequently being walked home by two fellow committee members, actually collapsed, plus had trouble sleeping after the exchange. On top of that, he said he had a flare-up of shingles, which his doctor told him can result from stress.

Writes to B.P. Brewer

Ten days after the meeting, Connor wrote to Manhattan Borough President Brewer, saying that Ely had “erupted in a rage” at him.

Brewer is ultimately responsible for appointing all the members of Manhattan’s 12 community boards. While local councilmembers recommend half of each board’s appointees, Brewer — who appoints the other half of the members — has the final say over all the appointments.

“After I made my statement, Mr. Ely walked to where I was sitting, put his fist in my face, stood over me and berated me in a loud voice and threatened me,” Connor wrote to Brewer. He told her Ely had threatened him, by saying, “You will get it! You will get it!” (Again, the audiotape shows that Ely did not say that.)

“Mr. Ely likes to control the meetings and he does not take well to opinions that do not agree with his,” Connor continued in his letter to Brewer. “I must feel safe at further board meetings. Bullying an older board member is unacceptable. Why is someone who behaves like this even allowed to remain on the board? I am asking you to intervene.”

Connor said he initially didn’t go to Cude with his complaint, but instead wrote Brewer, because he feared Cude “would bury it.”

Taken off committee

However, a few days after Connor wrote the borough president complaining about Ely, C.B. 2 Chairperson Cude e-mailed Connor informing him she had removed him from the S.L.A. Committee and reassigned him to the board’s Social Services Committee. Basically, Cude said, she had been impressed by a question Connor had asked Brewer when the B.P. had visited C.B. 2’s full board meeting, and decided the other committee would benefit from his expertise.

Board 2 Chairperson Terri Cude, right, fittingly donned a hat at the recent dedication of a plaque honoring the late Congressmember Bella Abzug near Abzug’s former Bank St. home. Photo by Tequila Minsky

“Your question to the borough president at the full board meeting was excellent, and I was heartened by B.P. Brewer’s response, stating that she would like C.B. 2 to take the lead and provide guidance to her office on the issue of senior centers,” Cude wrote Connor.

“To facilitate stronger senior advocacy and expertise for the Social Services Committee, in consultation with the relevant committee chairpersons, I have changed one of your committee assignments from S.L.A….to Social Services effective immediately. … [Y]ou remain on the Traffic and Transportation Committee as before.”

No heads-up

To Connor’s chagrin, he was not notified beforehand that he was being switched to another committee. However, a C.B. 2 member told The Villager that, under the board’s bylines, the chairperson is not required to notify members in advance if she wants to change their committee assignments.

Connor said, “Terri denied that there was any connection” between his complaining to Brewer and his removal from the S.L.A. Committee. He added that “it’s just common courtesy” to tell someone if they are going to be taken off a committee.

He noted that he serves on two committees and that Cude could have just as easily taken him off the other one — the board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee — instead of the S.L.A. Committee, if she wanted to put him on Social Services.

Asked why it’s so important to him to be on the S.L.A. Committee, he said he had been a member of it for several years, so had built up knowledge and expertise regarding the issues, and enjoyed the discussions.

“Some committees are very technical, like Landmarks and Zoning,” he said. “Well, I don’t know anything about that, and it’s kind of late to learn. If I’m going to be on a committee, I want to know what’s going on.”

He finds the issues on his other committee, the Traffic and Transportation Committee, also to be interesting.

‘Need for fairness’

“Also, I feel there’s a need for someone that’s fair [on the S.L.A. Committee],” he pointedly added. “I don’t feel that Bob and Carter are fair.”

At another point, he said, “They would like the Village to be like Great Neck — no nightlife. It’s hurting the Village.”

The board actually has two S.L.A. Committees, both of which meet monthly, one chaired by Ely, the other by Carter Booth. Both co-chairpersons attend all the meetings. The committee Connor was on often voted 5 to 4 on issues — in other words, the votes were very close — so losing his voice could tip the balance.

“The committee Terri put me on, they had no meeting in March, they have no meeting in April,” Connor groused of the Social Services Committee. “I want to be on a committee that has more effect.”

Asked for comment on the whole flap, Ely said in an e-mail, “I certainly did not threaten Tom and I am sorry he feels that way. I just wish he had come to speak to me about his concerns.”

Making moves

In a statement to The Villager, Cude said, “Community boards move members onto committees throughout the year. At times, a member’s expertise is needed more on one committee than another when important issues require strong advocacy. I do my best to assign board members where I believe they will make their best contribution, and monitor the assignments to make sure we have the strongest possible board.”

Jon Houston, a Brewer spokesperson, said the B.P.’s office looked into the matter and concluded that whatever happened at the committee on Jan. 9, it did not rise to the level alleged in Connor’s complaint.

“Complaints about behavior at meetings generally fall within the authority of the community board, unless they constitute an Equal Employment Opportunity violation, when a legal process must be followed,” Houston said. “Since an E.E.O. violation wasn’t alleged in this case, there is no prescribed legal process to follow; but we do try to act as a support resource. Our office reviewed an audio recording of the committee meeting, which — while somewhat heated — did not corroborate the complaint, and we met with board members to help calm the waters.”

A large meeting was convened at Brewer’s office with Connor, his supporters on the S.L.A. Committee and local politicians’ representatives, to discuss what happened at the Jan. 9 meeting and his subsequent removal from the committee.

Cude added that, in addition to Brewer’s office, C.B. 2 also did its own investigation into Connor’s accusations against Ely “and determined that the allegations were unfounded.”

Sole gay member

Connor also happens to be the only gay man currently serving on C.B. 2 — somewhat surprising for a community board that includes the Village. The board also has three lesbians, including Young. Connor is also a board member of the Jim Owles Liberal Democrat Club, which is led by Allen Roskoff, an influential longtime gay activist. Roskoff is championing Connor’s cause and has been advocating for him to be reinstated to the S.L.A. Committee.

Brewer: ‘Put him back’

In a phone interview with The Villager, B.P. Brewer confirmed that she would like to see Connor on the S.L.A. Committee again.

“I think he should go back on the committee, and I’ve made that clear to the board — to the chairperson,” she said. “And we’ll see what happens. I give them a little bit of time.”

Brewer — who was just leaving the unveiling of a new Bella Abzug plaque on Bank St. when The Villager reached her — said she expressed her feelings on the matter in a phone conversation with Cude.

“I made it clear,” Brewer said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Regarding Connor, the “Beep” said, “I like him very much.” Although adding she doesn’t know him that well, she said she has seen him around at community events. Connor is active in the Village Independent Democrats political club and also at the Greenwich House senior day center on Washington Square North.

“I think he’s an asset to the board and that he’s a good person to have on that committee,” Brewer stated.

Chin: ‘Disappointed’

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who appointed Connor to C.B. 2, also wrote a strong letter of concern to Brewer in February about the incident and his removal from the committee.

“Tom is an 86-year-old L.G.B.T. senior with a long history of contributing to his neighborhood and the larger community,” Chin wrote. “The actions described in his…letter to your office describe an environment that is hostile, threatening and denigrating of others who hold a differing opinion.

“Compounding this unfortunate situation is the inadequate and inappropriate response by C.B. 2 Chair Cude. Instead of addressing the threatening situation faced by a member of the community board, she retaliated by removing him from the S.L.A. Committee — of which he was a valuable and experienced contributor.

“As councilmember, I appointed Tom as an openly and proudly gay senior to provide a vital perspective on issues facing the community. I am, therefore, extremely disappointed to see him treated in such a disparaging and disrespectful manner.

“I ask that your office look into the situation and act appropriately to restore civil discourse to this important community board.”

In good ‘standing’?

Another “Rashomon”-like riddle is whether Ely standing up at the meeting was unusual for him.

A screenshot from the little-seen video of the exchange between Bob Ely and Tom Connor at the Jan. 9 C.B. 2 S.L.A. Committee meeting. Ely is seen standing at left, in dark suit, with his back to the camera. Connor is behind him on the other side of the table, with more than half of his face hidden from view. The two snippets of the video shown to The Villager were inconclusive in terms of what happened, and Ely’s body language does not appear menacing, in the paper’s view. The screenshot was provided to The Villager by the person who also showed the paper the videotape. To the right of Connor are committee member Robin Goldberg and committee co-chairperson Carter Booth. The man in the red sweater vest in the foreground was an audience member, not a committee member.

In an initial interview, Young said Ely was “very angry and he was, like, standing over Tom.

“He’s a big guy and he does have a temper sometimes. But he’s generally even-keeled.”

“Sometimes he stands, sometimes he sits,” Connor said, “but this was the first time he leaned over me and put his fist in my face.” (Again, Young said she didn’t see any fist.)

Speaking earlier, Connor said of Ely’s standing, “That was unusual. Maybe at the end of the meeting, when he’s summing up, he stands.”

The person who showed The Villager the video of the exchange was very careful to show only two snippets, so it’s not clear if Ely “jumped up” onto his feet and walked around to be nearer to Connor before addressing him — as Connor has claimed — or was already standing in that spot.

Young, in a subsequent interview, however, said it’s typical for the former A.D.A. to get up out of his seat during executive session, when the committee members form a huddle around the table and have their private discussion about the applications.

“Yes, he does stand,” Young said of Ely. “This was the executive session. And he will frequently stand to call attention to the fact that we’re all deliberating together, and we can all see him. I can’t say that it’s unusual for him to stand.”

Another committee member, speaking off the record, added that another reason Ely was standing was because the table was on a riser platform and positioned near the riser’s edge, so that if Ely had been sitting at that spot — on the audience side of the table — he would have been too low.

Young called the January meeting flare-up an anomaly.

“I think there was a bad moment between Tom and Bob,” she said. “Bob got very, very angry. He’s not typically like this. But for some reason, this ticked him off. Tom was kind of freaked out about it.”

Quashing dissent?

Young and two other committee members, who she did not name, wrote a letter to C.B. 2 Chairperson Cude expressing their concern about the incident.

Particularly troubling, Young added, was Connor’s abrupt removal from the committee.

“Should we all be worried we will be taken off a committee if we disagree with the [committee] chairperson?” she asked.

Asked if she felt Connor should be reinstated on the committee, Young responded, “I think he should be.” She noted that she also said in her letter to Cude that Ely was “a good chairperson” of the committee.

In general, Young said, Connor’s removal from the committee was “mishandled.”

“It was a mess, an unneeded mess,” she reflected.

Wants back on

Speaking a few days ago, Connor said it’s now his understanding that there is a movement afoot to put him back on the S.L.A. Committee, and that he would, in fact, welcome that. Cude confirmed that things are heading that way.

However, Connor said he’s being told he has to first meet with Cude and committee co-chairpersons Ely and Booth, and he’s uncomfortable with that.

“That’s three against one,” he said, adding he would like someone to be there who is on “his side.”

“I want Shirley or Elaine or Robin,” he said, referring to S.L.A. Committee members Dr. Shirley Smith, Young or Robin Goldberg.

As for rejoining the committee, he said he does want to, but isn’t going to rush it.

“I think I will go back,” he said. “But I want to think it over.”

Nightlife fight

Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier in this article, Connor’s situation also should be viewed in the context of the nightlife battle in C.B. 2 — and beyond. Connor’s charges that the S.L.A. Committee is being “unfair” and has a “pattern” of rejecting liquor-license applications are echoed by activist Allen Roskoff, who, again, is championing Connor and his return to the S.L.A. Committee.

Roskoff was in the audience at last month’s C.B. 2 full-board meeting when the board overwhelmingly voted to recommend denial of a liquor-license application for another private members club, the Groucho Club, on Lafayette St. Only two board members voted to recommend approval of the license. Roskoff said he was at the meeting because the Groucho Club applicants were “friends.”

“They should just call themselves the ‘Anti-Nightlife Board,’” Roskoff fumed afterward. “This is now the worst board in the city. You’ve got Cude and the two co-chairpersons [Ely and Booth].

“They just took Tom Connor off the committee because he was pro-nightlife,” he added, quickly amending that to, “because he was reasonable to liquor-license applications. … The S.L.A. is better than these guys,” Roskoff scoffed, referring to the actual state agency that makes decisions on handing out liquor licenses.

Roskoff said he is not a registered lobbyist for the nightlife industry. However, showing his involvement in the issue, on March 8, Roskoff, Councilmember Rafael Espinal and Bushwick artist Rachel Nelson jointly penned an op-ed in City & State headlined “An open letter to NYC’s first nightlife mayor: 5 suggestions for Ariel Palitz from those people responsible for creating her new job.”

C.B. 2 bar facts

Told of Roskoff’s accusation, Cude said the figures simply don’t support it. Last year, she noted, the board received a total of 319 liquor-license applications. Due to withdrawals or applicants failing to appear before the community board for a review — which are automatic denials until further action on the applicant’s part — the practical number drops to 165. Of that figure, C.B. 2 denied 32, or around 19 percent, of the applications, she said.

Plus, all the denials are given “a path to approval,” she added, meaning C.B. 2 sets out stipulations that the applicants must follow in order win the board’s support, such as earlier closing hours, keeping windows closed, installing soundproofing and the like.

“On C.B. 2’s S.L.A. Committees,” Cude said, “members volunteer many hours to help assure that the bars and restaurants in our primarily residential mixed-use neighborhoods balance nightlife with quality of life. This hard work provides the basis for vibrant and livable neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, some nightlife industry supporters don’t always agree with the committee’s decisions and may seek to undermine our efforts with accusations, but these do not deter our efforts to achieve that delicate balance.”

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