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Fields' removal of Community Board chair gets flack

Borough President C. Virginia Fields' 11th hour decision to oust Madelyn Wils from Community Board 1 last week raised more questions than it answered, leaving remaining board members wondering what motivated Fields to remove their longtime chairperson in the middle of her term.

"The question is, 'Why was Virginia Fields so compelled and threatened that she felt she had to remove an effective leader?'" said board member Bruce Ehrmann.

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C.B. 1 members criticize Fields over leader's removal
Downtown Express
April 15, 2005
By Ronda Kaysen

Wils, a board member since 1987 and chairperson since 2000, steered the board through its darkest hours in the days following Sept. 11th, 2001. A notable Downtown figure and president and C.E.O. of the Tribeca Film Institute, Wils also sits on several other boards including the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the Downtown Alliance and the Hudson River Park Trust. Since 9/11, Wils has increasingly gained notice as a vocal Downtown leader, appearing prominently at many key events from which Fields was notably absent.

"Unfortunately, Downtown has become very visible since 9/11 and anybody who's doing a lot of work is going to be noted. If you look at any event, you see Madelyn in the crowd--if not in the forefront--and you don't see Virginia and that's her choice," said board member Pat Moore, who was recently reappointed to a second two-year term by Fields at City Councilmember Alan Gerson's request.

Fields is climbing in the polls in her race to unseat Mayor Bloomberg, narrowing Fernando Ferrer's lead for the Democratic nomination. Her election year decision to remove a board member who rivals her in name recognition if not power smacks of politics, according to several board members.

"I don't see what the city or Downtown or Virginia gained by this maneuver. I don't understand what was accomplished here other than mendacity," said board member Paul Hovitz, who has not received his own re-appointment papers yet. "When you get past these petty personal issues, you come down to: now you're the borough president, you're a candidate for mayor, what have you accomplished for your campaign other than saying you're vindictive?"

Hovitz, chairperson of the Youth and Education Committee, may run in a June election to fill Wils' seat. "I am considering putting my hat in the ring," he said. Last year Wils suggested to Hovitz that he run for chair, indicating at the time she might not finish out her term, Hovitz said.

Wils sent board members an undated resignation letter late last week, noting Fields intended to remove her in 2004, but chose to extend her appointment for "at least an additional year to enable me to complete negotiations on projects."

When Wils ran for a two-year term as chair in June, neither she nor Fields disclosed that Wils had less than a year left on the board.

"When we voted last year, I was not aware that it was only an appointment for a year," said Moore. "Someone should have made us aware of that and it should have been Virginia."

Wils attended a C.B. 1 meeting earlier this week, sitting in the back of the room instead of on the committee podium where she had sat the previous Wednesday, shortly after Fields had announced her removal from the board.

She did speak at Tuesday's meeting, however: as an L.M.D.C. board member, on behalf of the corporation, but not on behalf of C.B. 1.

When asked by Downtown Express why she chose not to disclose her looming removal from the board when she ran for re-election last June, Wils declined to comment.

"Madelyn had some advice from folks in the know and other elected officials not to make a big deal about this because Virginia would change her mind in a year, which she did not," said Hovitz, adding that it was Fields' responsibility - not Wils' - to inform the board.

The secrecy surrounding Wils' removal does not end with her unusual one-year appointment (board members are typically appointed to two-year terms).

Many board members learned about Wils' removal from Downtown Express, and none said they had received any official confirmation from Fields' office.

"I hadn't heard about any of this until I saw UnderCover," said board member Anthony Notaro, referring to a column in this paper that ran two weeks ago.

Notaro, chairperson of the Battery Park City Committee, is gearing up for a board chair campaign of his own now that the seat is open. "What has transpired in the last few weeks has been very difficult; we now need to focus on what we can do to address many of the issues that face our community," he said.

Several board members have yet to receive word that their own positions are secure. Although the borough president's office is typically slow to act in the reappointment process - a tradition that predates Fields - the unexpected removal of Wils has members concerned.

Fields' office offered little help settling the matter. "I don't think we know who is up [for reappointment] and I don't think we know who we're going to re-appoint. That's not what the focus of our office is at the moment. We have 27 other things to do," deputy borough president Barbara Baer told Downtown Express on March 25, six days before terms expired. Baer added that Fields' office was not required to re-appoint board members until "June or July."

Downtown Express filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the borough president's office on March 25 for the list of board members up for re-appointment, which is public information. Her office has yet to respond as is required by law.

The last two weeks have been marked by a flurry of activity and anxiety as board members scrambled to find accurate information, and some campaigned to keep their leader afloat. Several board members circulated a letter, led by co-chair Richard Kennedy, calling for Wils' re-appointment.

Although the group garnered 29 signatures - the majority of the 50-member board - many board members felt pressured into signing the epistle, an outcome Kennedy insists was unintended. "No pressure was meant to be extended, if someone felt that way, they certainly didn't express that," he said in a telephone interview.

Some board members are less than distraught over Wils' removal, including Marc Ameruso, who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Wils last year and intends to run for chair again now that the seat is reopened. "I'm sure that if [Fields] is not going to reappoint someone, she must have a really good reason not to," he told Downtown Express last week. "It's the only way I can look at it."

Now serving as interim chair in Wils' stead, Kennedy also has his eyes on a more long-term crack at chairmanship, although he would not elaborate on his campaign. "My only goal for the next few months is to be sure we can do all the things to move the community forward," he said.

Still reeling from the sudden changing of the guards, the Executive Committee drafted a resolution on Wednesday night lauding Wils for her years of service and leadership.

Every board needs its chair and C.B. 1 will elect a nominating committee at its full board meeting next Tuesday to fill the empty seat. "I don't know what the issues were between Virginia and Madelyn, but I do understand there are divisions on the board and now is the time to unify," said board member and possible chairperson candidate Julie Menin, although she did not elaborate on what divisions plagued the board.

The nominating committee will announce the candidates the following month and in June the board will vote publicly for a new chairperson to finish out the remaining year of Wils' term.

With reporting by Divya Watal and Josh Rogers