Payback’s a Pain For Community Board 2

By Stephen Witt

Following a lawsuit which cost the city about $175,000, local community boards have been put on notice to adhere to their own bylaws. The January 12, 2006 notice follows a lawsuit in which former Community Board 2 District Manager Ola Alabi successfully sued the community board for back pay after being fired in June 2003. “What prompted the memo is community boards have to understand they are fiscally liable for any back pay,” said Randy Panetta, of the city’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Panetta heads the OMB’s Community Board Relations Unit, and wrote the memo, obtained last week by Courier-Life Publications, to all community board chairs. Panetta said each community board in the city is allocated $189,695 annually to pay district managers and to cover their expenses. Rather than shut down CB 2 for a year, the city will look for ways to help the board under the circumstances, but this shouldn’t be taken as a precedent, said Panetta. Panetta said the city will not seek any punitive or fiscal damages from CB 2, such as shorting them a percent of their annual money until the money is repaid to the city. Alabi took the matter of her firing to court, where a State Supreme Court ruled for the community board on the grounds that Alabi is an “at will” employee. An “at will” employee means that unlike civil service employees, a district manager can be dismissed for no reason at the will of the community board. However, the Appellate Court overruled the decision on the grounds that Community Board 2 violated their own bylaws in the way they fired Alabi. CB 2 bylaws state a district manager can only be removed following a vote of the entire community board membership. The city did not appeal the Appellate Court decision. “The board did everything by the book with one exception and that exception cost them,” said Panetta. “Please make sure that your community board follows the above recommended procedures if and when it ever becomes necessary to take disciplinary action against an employee,” he wrote in the memo. “Also review your bylaws to ascertain that the legal interests of the board are irrefutably protected in these matters,” the memo added. The memo also advised chairpersons that legal guidance can be obtained on these issues through the labor employment attorney at the city’s Corporation Counsel. But CB 2 Chair Shirley McCrae maintained the board did nothing wrong in the manner in which they fired Alabi, and feels the city could have successfully appealed the Appellate Court decision. “At the time we did this, it was based on the information we had,” said McCrae. “All our i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed.” McCrae said the board’s decision to terminate Alabi was not capricious or personal. The decision was based on her job performance as district manager, McCrae said. McCrae said prior to putting the matter to a vote at the special meeting, CB 2 called the city’s Department of Personnel, and was assured they were doing the dismissal by the book. As for not following their own bylaws, McCrae said the city’s Personnel Department assured the community board that their bylaws do not supersede city charter bylaws or the state open meeting bylaws. According to the City Charter and state bylaws, all that is required for the dismissal is a vote of the majority in a meeting in which a quorum is present, said McCrae. According to the dictionary, a quorum is a minimal number of officers and members of a committee or organization, usually a majority, who must be present for valid transaction of business. At the June 2003 special meeting to dismiss Alabi, there were 40 of the between 47-50 members of the community board present, according to CB 2 Vice Chair Irene Janner. The vote to let Alabi go was 23-16 in favor with one abstention. The 23 votes in favor is less than half of the full board membership. Alabi refused comment, and her attorney, Roosevelt Seymour, said he didn’t know anything about the memo, and the case is settled. Both McCrae and Alabi have some political roots through former City Councilmember Mary Pinkett’s office. Alabi was a Pinkett legislative aide, and McCrae received Pinkett’s endorsement to become CB 2 chair. Alabi is currently executive assistant to 1199 head Dennis Rivera, and is reportedly considering a run for the 57th district State Assembly. That seat is currently held by Roger Green.