By Dustin Brown
Joseph Conley, the longtime chairman of Community Board 2, is resigning under pressure from his leadership post at the request of Borough President Helen Marshall, whose spokesman cited tension between Conley and City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) as the reason for his ouster.
Conley's announcement that he would leave the chairmanship as of May 1 set off a flurry of protest at last Thursday's board meeting, where some members lambasted the decision as politically motivated. The board agreed to send a letter to Marshall expressing their support for Conley's continued service as chairman.
“I believe the borough president was under tremendous political pressure to remove me from the community board,” Conley said in a phone interview following the meeting. “My choice was, if I didn't agree to step down as chairman of the board, then I would be removed from the board.”
Gioia, who was not present at the meeting but was represented there by staff, dismissed the controversy in an interview Tuesday, stressing that his attention is devoted to improving the neighborhood.
“I don't have time to focus on petty bickering about people's title on the community board,” Gioia said. “This is the type of silly squabble that really turns people off.”
Gioia declined to comment on whether he played any role in Marshall's decision.
Conley's ouster as chairman thrusts into the spotlight the ill feelings that linger between him and Gioia more than a year and a half after they ran against each other for the council seat Gioia now holds.
The composition of the community boards is determined by the local city council representative and the borough president, each of whom nominates half of the board members to their positions.
Marshall's spokesman, Dan Andrews, said Conley's removal as chairman was in keeping with the best interests of Community Board 2, which covers Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside and part of Maspeth.
“The borough president was made aware that there was a certain degree of tension on the board,” Andrews said, later elaborating that “there was some tension between Eric and Joe.”
“She had seen personally that a board does not function well when there is friction,” Andrews said. “So she did what she thought would be the fair thing to do. Her goal is to have the board function well.”
At last Thursday's meeting, Stephen Cooper, the board's first vice chairman, was elected to replace Conley in the chairman's seat as of May 1, while Conley will replace Cooper as the second in command.
In interviews following the meeting, many members of the community board praised Conley as a leader while criticizing the process by which he was forced out.
“He's done an extraordinary job,” said board secretary Lisa Deller. “He's got a huge amount of integrity and is a wonderful leader.”
“I think it's ridiculous,” board member Dorothy Morehead said of Conley's removal. “I think it is no way to treat somebody who has performed admirably and selflessly as chairman.”
Although the board's support for Conley was expressed loudly and passionately last Thursday, some members said afterward they were disturbed by the way some people conducted themselves at the meeting.
“I just didn't like how everyone was not wanting to let him step down,” said board member Dominick Lippolis, who was appointed less than two years ago.
Conley said Marshall's request for him to resign came despite her conclusion that intimations of a conflict of interest regarding his business interests in the community were unfounded.
“If he didn't have a conflict of interest, why didn't the guy stay where he was? Why does he have so much interest in being the community board chairman for so long,” Lippolis asked.
Andrews stressed there was no concern of impropriety on Conley's part. “Joe Conley satisfactorily answered all of the questions the borough president asked him during their private meeting,” Andrews said. “She said he's been an excellent chair.”
The original inquiry into a potential conflict of interest stemmed from Conley's position as a property manager overseeing two significant sites in Long Island City, Conley said. But he stressed that as chairman he never votes on any items that come before the board, and he even recuses himself from chairing the meetings when an item comes up that may affect his properties – which other board members corroborated.
Conley has served as chairman of the board for the past 11 years, and Gioia was elected to the Council in late 2001 following the institution of term limits that forced the entire Queens council delegation out of office.
Conley also ran for the same council seat in a Democratic primary that featured a total of five candidates, and the hard feelings between the two men apparently dates back to that contest.
“It's a matter that is known to most people that bad blood from the primary has never healed,” said Cooper, who indicated that reliable political sources told him Conley's removal came at Gioia's urging. “Eric was upset with Joe and did not wish to see Joe continuing as chairman of the community board,” Cooper said.
Whether or not the men's relationship has negatively affected the community board's productivity is a matter of dispute, with both Gioia and Conley insisting they have kept open the lines of communication between their offices.
But Conley claims Gioia's office does not return phone calls placed by the board's district manager, which Gioia denied.
“My door is always open,” Gioia said. “I will work with anybody in the community who is willing to put the community's interest first.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.