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Public, Board Members Condemn Community Board for Purchase of $26,000 SUV

Members of the public express their frustrations with the Community Board. (Laura Hanrahan)

June 13, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan

Local residents and board members alike furiously condemned the executives of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 at Tuesday night’s full board meeting for the purchase of a $26,000 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, acquired using a taxpayer-funded grant from the City Council.

News of the SUV purchase first hit during last month’s meeting, when board member Emily Gallagher inquired about using the grant money to purchase a complaint tracking system. Board members were then informed that more than half of the $42,500 grant had, unknowingly to many of the board’s members, had been spent on the car. 

Throughout the ensuing heated discussion, which was noticeably left out of the meeting’s recorded minutes, it remained unclear what the vehicle was used for besides driving Chairperson Dealice Fuller to meetings at Borough Hall. When directly asked about the topic, Fuller stated that is was used “to go different places.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members passed a motion to have the discussion added into the May meeting’s minutes.

Members of the public blasted the board for what they viewed as a waste of taxpayer money during the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s meeting, with some going so far as to call on the board members involved to resign.

“I was very shocked when I heard that the committee chose to spend money on an SUV, $26,000. I couldn’t understand why,” said one resident. “I thought maybe to distribute sandbags, flyers but then I heard that it was for transportation down to City Hall, but we have public transportation.”

Other speakers referenced the fact that the contentious purchase has drawn the attention of Mayor de Blasio, who called on the city Department of Investigation to look into the board’s actions. 

A number of outraged residents cited alternative items that could have been purchased, or efforts that the money could have been put toward, that would have benefited the community as a whole.

With the substantial amount of construction and contaminated soil remediations going on in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg areas, resident Francoise Olivas said she calculated the number of air monitors that could have been purchased with $26,000.

“The answer is 104,” Olivas said.

Resident Mike Cherepko brought up the proposed purchase of the complaint tracking system, stating that the system would be a good step forward for the board that he views as often not wanting to engage with the community.

“For instance, [at board meetings] you have to sign up by 6 p.m. in order to speak at 9 p.m., or you have to sit in the back where you can’t hear anything,” Cherepko said, referencing the fact that Fuller would not allow noisy window air conditioners to be turned off during the meeting, despite repeated complaints that those in the back of the room could not hear what was being said.

Many members of the board were supportive of the public’s concerns and even raised their own. Gallagher pointed out that the Community Board’s bylaws require the board to have a second budgetary subcommittee that reports to the full board on a monthly basis about the board’s spending—something that Community Board 1 had never established.

Per the bylaws, [the SUV purchase] should have come to the board for approval and if that had happened, it might have really muted the public perception,” said Board Member Stephen Chesler.

Financial Secretary Maria Viera and Fuller agreed to establish the budgetary committee.

In response to requests to sell the car, Fuller explained that the board would not be able to simply sell the SUV and repurpose the money elsewhere. If the vehicle were to be sold, the money would be returned to the City, Fuller said. In response, board members asked Fuller to inquire within appropriate city agencies about whether the money could then be given back to the board.

Some board members appeared to dismiss the public’s right to be outraged about the purchase of the SUV.

“This is a volunteer job, I don’t get a dime,” said board member Julia Amanda Foster. “We sit in some of these meetings until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. This is the first time I’ve seen many of you up here, making comments about a car that we have.”

The public grew further upset after a perceived slight from Fuller who, as the discussion was wrapping up, asked “Is there anyone else who wants to holler on this?”

Despite Fuller’s insistence throughout the meeting that proper protocol had been followed in the purchase of the vehicle, Viera apologized for how the board went about the car’s acquisition, but specified that she did not apologize for the purchase of the vehicle itself. Viera then moved on to go through the proposed budget for the upcoming year, which allocated $200 in gas money for the SUV.

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