Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Who's Got a Conflict in West Harlem?

Matt Scheurman's Real Estate Blog at the observer has a post up on the effort to remove (our client) Nick Sprayregen from the West Harlem LDC. The LDC was set up to supposedly negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with Columbia University; in the many months of its existence it has yet to advance one concrete proposal for the university to consider.

The removal effort appears to be the brainchild of Susan Russell, an aid to Councilman Jackson. Ms. Russell claims that Nick, "...has a financial interest that is very different from the community's." This is simply a fabrication; Sprayregen's interest in preserving his property for development in conformance with the community's 197-a plan is, by definition, not in conflict with the community's vision. In addition, Russell has been lobbying for months to remove Nick from the LDC, and quite frankly it's time someone asked just why she is pursuing this.

In whose interest is it that Nick be gone? Sprayregen is one figure in the West Harlem community with the resources to fight the university. He has aligned himself with, and has the support of, the Coalition to Preserve Community, an assortment of community groups who have been around a good deal longer than Russell and her boss. His removal, it seems to us, could only be in the interest of Columbia; and any one advocating his removal-well, you can connect the dots here.

If that's the case, where does the most blatant conflict lie in all of this? If Russell is really concerned with conflicts she should have been on her soap box very early on when the LDC decided to appoint Jesse James Masyr as its "pro bono" counsel. What kind of pro bono attorney reserves the right to be paid at a later date by an unnamed third party? This obvious Trojan Horse-someone who has never, ever, represented a community interest suddenly willing to temporarily donate his valuable time-doesn't faze Russell and her boss?

If anyone was truly concerned with conflicts in this situation they would insist that members of the LDC, and staff to any elected official, be barred from accepting any employment from Columbia University for at least five years. With Bill Lynch out there dangling opportunities in front of a poor community it is imperative that steps be taken to insure the integrity of this process.

As far as Nick Sprayregen's putative conflict is concerned The Real Estate Blog, final comments bear repeating: "According to the development corporation's web site, he fills a spot reserved for commercial property owners in Manhattanville. How is someone going to represent business owners in the footprint who does not have a conflict of interest?"

This misses an important point, and highlights the difficulty in defining what represents community interest versus what represents "private" interests. What the 197-a plan does is to underscore just how much the indigenous community believes that there is no conflict between preserving local business and advancing the general community good. Therefore, Sprayregen has no reason to apologize for his fight to preserve his property rights, and there is no reason for him to be removed. If any one should resign from the LDC it is Russell, la muñeca, and Masyr.


Matt Scheurman revises his blog post to include a clarifying comment from Sprayregen that underscores some of our points above.