New Chair of CB5 Fends Off Charges His Open NY Group “Infiltrated” Community Board

In an emergency board meeting, the new chairman of CB5, Samir Lavingia, said he wanted to find mutual solutions to shared problems but was often shouted down in a raucous three and a half hour session on April 3.

| 04 Apr 2024 | 09:06

The new chair of Community Board 5, fending off charges that his housing advocacy group had illicitly infiltrated the board and maneuvered him into the chair, sought to calm his colleagues at an emergency meeting, but found himself repeatedly overruled by most of the rest of the board.

“As Chair, I want to work on finding solutions to our shared problems,” said the new chair, Samir Lavingia, amid a clamorous three-and-a-half-hour emergency meeting. “So, on behalf of the board, the most important thing I can say to the public tonight is that we are sorry that some recent officer changes on the board, prompting some discord, is taking up space and resources that should be devoted to working on your behalf. We must do better by you, and as Chair I will continue to do everything I can to focus on the work we do on your behalf.”

But it became quickly clear that most of his board colleagues were not at all ready to move on.

Lavingia is campaign coordinator of a group called Open New York, a tech-funded not-for-profit that says its mission is to press the government to remove obstacles to building more housing. Four members of Open New York have been appointed to CB 5, including Lavingia.

Lavingia, a 29-year-old former software engineer for Google and Twitter, stressed that he joined the board in August 2021, before he went to work for Open New York. “I live in this district and very much care about all the issues you care about–housing, quality of life, the effective deployment of social services and more,” he sought to assure his colleagues and the community.

But other board members and speakers from the public protested that the presence of four members from the same organization, an organization they labeled as a “lobbyist,” was, as one put it, a “mortal threat” to the independence of the Community Board.

“Samir is a lobbyist,” said a long-time critic, Connie Murray, an activist who traveled in from Queens to speak at the Manhattan Board meeting. “It is important for the transparency to be there.”

Open New York, as well as several staff members, including Lavingia, are registered as lobbyists with the New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.

The meeting was called when 17 of the forty-some-odd members petitioned for an emergency session after Lavingia was elected chair in March. Many members said they did not understand what was being voted on and a portion of the emergency meeting was taken up by complaints about the inadequacy of online tech for members who joined that meeting remotely.

The meeting got off to a rocky start for Lavingia. He had planned to begin by reading his statement “to formally introduce myself to the public for the first time as Chair.”

But the board, on a 21-to-4 vote, scrapped Lavingia’s agenda and ruled that the public should be allowed to speak first. The board then took the gavel away from Lavingia for the emergency meeting and put it in the hands of a long-time member.

What followed was more than an hour of condemnations of Open New York, as well as some spirited defenses of Lavingia.

Even his older brother, Sahil Lavingia, called in, describing Lavingia as a man of creativity and integrity. “I think you guys are really lucky,” he said. “He’ll be an awesome board chair if you let him.”

That question was left unanswered. The term Lavingia is filling ends in June. So his opponents can simply wait until then and offer an alternative candidate. It was not clear whether the overwhelming votes against Lavingia at the emergency meeting would translate into support for a new Chair come June, or sooner.

In the meantime, the rump group that demanded the emergency meeting proposed a series of measures to get board members to reveal their affiliations and limit the presence of members of any one group on the executive committee (to one) and the full board (to three).

Action on the measures was laid over until next week’s regularly scheduled board meeting.

“Last night’s emergency meeting was a wake-up call, not just for members of Manhattan Community Board five, but for the Manhattan Borough Presidents office and other community boards in the five boroughs,” said one board member, Charles Ny. “The public will not stand for or tolerate lobbyist groups and special interest groups flooding local community boards with their members.”

Community Board members are appointed by the Borough President, often on recommendations of local Council members. They serve without pay.

Mark Levine, the Manhattan Borough President, attended a portion of the emergency meeting but made no comments, other than to give a big hug to a former board member, Layla Law-Gisiko, who had resigned to protest the presence of Open New York’s members on the board.

Lavingia in his statement pointed out that it was the resignation of Law-Gisiko and colleagues, rather than any plot by Open New York, that catapulted him into the chair.

“I want to be clear that I did not expect any of this to happen,” Lavingia said. “But now that I am chair, I am working to be a good steward in this role to help us keep moving forward as a board.”

He promised “to avoid any sense of impropriety” by “always following the bylaws to the best of my ability and consulting with the relevant parties, such as the Vice Chairs of the Board, and the Chairs and Vice Chairs of the different committees whenever decisions are made.”

He described himself as “interim chair,” serving in that capacity through the June Board meeting.

Community Board Five covers some of the most valuable property in the world, stretching through midtown from 59th street down to 14th street, taking in everything from Times Square and Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to the booming new Flatiron/NoMad district.

Among the board’s pending challenges are the future of Penn Station and its neighborhood and the question of whether a casino could be located in Times Square or on Fifth Avenue.

Community Boards are largely advisory, but their views can hold considerable political sway.