Western Queens community board chairwoman out after discrimination complaint

Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee did not reappoint the chair of Community Board 2.

Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee would not elaborate on her decision to not reappoint Community Board 2 Chairwoman Denise Keehan Smith, who was replaced by Lisa Ann Deller, the longtime leader of the Land Use Committee.

The move came two months after CB2’s district manager Debra Markell Kleinert filed a discrimination complaint with Borough Hall.

“I will not explain my reasons,” Lee said. “I think it would be a slippery slope. It would not be constructive. Each member has a two-year term and at the conclusion of those two years, there is an application process for each member. To suggest anyone was dismissed or removed I would say that is simply not true.”

CB2 district manager Debra Markell Kleinert filed a discrimination complaint against the board’s chair. (QNS/File)

Lee took the action days after the Queens Daily Eagle broke the news that an equal employment opportunity complaint had been filed by Community Board 2’s district manager Debra Markell Kleinert on March 19 claiming Keehan Smith was “abrasive, abusive, accusatory and constantly harassing me” for more than two years. The Queens Borough President’s Office could neither confirm nor deny a complaint against Keehan Smith exists.

Markell Kleinert, who has held the district manager job at CB2 since 2006, wrote that Keehan Smith has refused to talk to her in person or by phone and ordered her to report to the office in mid-March despite the COVID-19 outbreak. She added that her age and respiratory issues made her particularly vulnerable to the illness, according to the Eagle.

During her district manager report during CB2’s virtual public meeting Thursday, Markell Kleinert addressed the situation.

“It is unfortunate the events of the past few days have occurred,” she said. “I have worked extremely hard and diligently to address all of the issues affecting CB2 in the best interest of our residents and businesses for almost 14 years. I will continue to look to work to optimize results for this community board in harmony with our membership.”

In addition to serving as a district manager at CB2, Markell Kleinert was as president of Flushing’s 109th Precinct Community Council and she was a member of Community Board 7. She also served as the Queens director of the Community Assistance Unit under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and as the NorthQueens director under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I had no idea about the complaint that was filed back on March 19 and Borough Hall didn’t notify me about it until two months later,” Keehan Smith said.

She was away in Pennsylvania when Lee called to inform her that she would not be re-appointed to CB2 after 10 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, and after a 24-minute conversation, Keehan Smith was still in the dark.

“I wish I knew why,” she said. “I told her she wasn’t following proper protocol and you don’t remove a community board chair without proof of wrongdoing. I don’t believe and board members would have made a complaint about me. I was re-elected five times in 3 ½ years, each time unanimously.”

Former CB2 chair Pat O’Brien with Denise Keehan Smith the night she was unanimously elected to replace him. (QNS/File)

Keehan Smith replaced Pat O’Brien in 2016 after he announced he was stepping down to focus on his law firm. O’Brien remained on the board and was part of the virtual meeting and he told Lee there was  “a great deal of anger and resentment” over Keehan Smith’s removal calling it a “very flawed and unfair process.”

Lee disagreed with O’Brien saying the process was not flawed.

“The process is no different than years passed and I actually don’t think it was an unfair process at all,” Lee said. “No single individual is entitled or guaranteed to a seat on a community board.”

Keehan Smith disagrees, pointing out Lee was not elected but selected by former Borough President Melinda Katz who stepped down in January to become Queens district attorney. 

“I am going to continue to fight this especially because of the way Sharon Lee did not give me the opportunity to defend myself,” Keehan Smith said. “I want the opportunity to clear my name. I still have never even seen the complaint and I never had the chance to defend myself.”

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