By Dustin Brown
City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) and Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley brought a public end to their political feud last week, shaking hands before a packed crowd one month after tensions with the councilman forced Conley to step down.
But the symbolic gesture of reconciliation failed to appease community board members who voiced outrage when Borough President Helen Marshall stood by her demand that Conley relinquish his leadership post until October, when board members can vote him back in as chair.
“I asked him to step aside just for a while, to bridge the gap and let things cool off,” Marshall said at the May 7 meeting of Community Board 2, where she appeared with Conley and Gioia to ease the controversy sparked by Conley's resignation.
The board refused to relent, however, passing a resolution by a narrow 20-18 margin to delay the election of a new chairman until next month to provide Marshall an opportunity to reverse her stance.
Conley had announced at last month's board meeting that he would step down as chairman, effective May 1, in response to a request from Marshall, who believed the tension between Gioia and Conley was interfering with board business. Conley's resignation had sparked a torrent of impassioned protests from members of the community board, who had unanimously re-elected him as chairman last October.
Gioia and Conley met privately with Marshall and Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz half an hour before last week's 7 p.m. public meeting to iron out their differences.
They walked out pledging to work closely together, representing a 180-degree turn from the past year and a half in which the men – two of the most prominent leaders in the neighborhood – had hardly spoken.
“We had a talk about how the board has been functioning and how the board should work more closely with the councilman,” Conley told board members. “I have made my pledge to work with the councilman, Eric Gioia.”
The private meeting also gave Gioia and Conley an opportunity to air their grievances face-to-face almost two years after the city council race that apparently sparked the hard feelings.
Gioia acknowledged that the meeting started off “acrimonious,” and even Marshall said “there was just friction tonight.”
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 garnered 18 percent of the vote – compared to Gioia's 43 – when he ran for the same council seat in a Democratic primary that featured five candidates, and the hard feelings between the two dates back to that contest.
But Gioia admitted there was no basis for him to feud with Conley.
“I don't know Joe well enough – and he doesn't know me well enough – to have personal problems with each other,” Gioia said. “We agreed to walk out of that room united, to work together to make this neighborhood a better place.”
Board members remained united in their opposition to Conley's resignation, rallying around him as a highly regarded leader whose ouster represented the unwarranted encroachment of politics into community board business.
“He is my image of a statesman, not a politician,” board member Marilyn Elseroad said of Conley. “It is a disservice to Community Board 2 that he stepped down. Politics were never part of this board.”
“There really is a big mistake being made here. That has created more friction than all of the other friction that is alleged to have been behind the scenes,” said Gregory Switzer, another board member. “I would really like to know if Councilman Gioia would have an aversion to Joe Conley being chairman.”
Marshall countered: “This isn't Eric Gioia's decision, this is Helen Marshall's decision.”
Marshall characterized her request that Conley step down as “one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make” but insisted it would stand despite board members' vocal opposition.
Conley also refused to rescind the resignation he gave in April.
“Out of respect to the borough president I'm keeping my word and will not accept the nomination,” he said.
When pressed further, Marshall said, “Right now my decision still stands, but let me think about it,” which gave enough hope to board members that they voted to hold off on electing a new chairman until next month.
The vote was contentious, however, with almost half voting against postponing the election so board members could put the controversy behind them and move forward.
Because Conley stepped down as chairman as of last week's meeting, the board's first vice chairman, Stephen Cooper, is now serving as chairman.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.