Short Takes – Gerry EspositoIf you asked me to pick one person who would be considered Williamsburg and Greenpoint’s ultimate insider, I would pick Gerry Esposito.
As the District Manager of Community Board One, Gerry has worked as a tireless advocate for North Brooklyn for more than thirty years. He has been a regular presence at community board meetings, often also working behind the scenes with public officials on issues such neighborhood rezoning promises, cuts to police and fire services, long-term transportation projects, and securing meeting space for community organizations.
The office itself, with its charming wood paneling and framed newsprints of past neighborhood battles and victories, is a reflection of stability and quiet persistence. Gerry would be one of the last people to chain himself up to an illegal condominium construction project or an endangered firehouse to demonstrate against a project. He would more likely make a phone call or write a letter to achieve a similar result. In some cases, he has significantly helped speed up the advocacy.
So when Gerry showed up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sleek, multimedia-friendly volunteer service event, held at the Armory Track and Field in Washington Heights on April 21, he was surprised to find that he had been uninvited. Two NYPD officers escorted him from the event after two mayoral aides identified him inside the lobby. Jim Dwyer from the New York Times recounted the event in last Saturday’s paper, but I will provide some background.
Several days before the event, Gerry sent an email to his district manager colleagues to come to the event and let the Mayor know how they felt about the proposed budget cuts to their community boards. With annual budgets between $150,000 and $200,000, community boards, like other city agencies, were facing across-the-board cuts of 5 percent in November, and another 7 percent in January of next year. Most boards consist of a District Manager and one or two staff members. District managers including Robert Perris of Community Board Two (Downtown Brooklyn) and Nadine Whitted of Community Board Four (Bushwick) believe they would have to cut one salaried position if the cuts were approved.
“The cuts impact our ability to do what we need to do. We’re just trying to hold onto the meager money we have,” said Whitted, who drafted a letter last month on behalf of the board to the Mayor urging him to reverse the cuts. “We have three and a half on salary now.”
Whitted has not heard back from the Mayor or his staff about the letter. Neither has Perris. Perris heard about the incident from Gerry shortly, pointing out the irony of the Mayor proposing a new volunteerism initiative and holding an event promoting public service at the same time he was reducing staffing budgets for a local governmental service organization largely run by volunteer community leaders.
“I don’t think he’s done as much time in jail as Councilmember Charles Barron but he’s been a forceful advocate for Greenpoint and Williamsburg,” said Perris. “He’s not a tiny guy. Maybe that was part of it.”
He’s also running for office. After years of waiting for seats to open up for an Assembly seat or a city-level position, last Fall Gerry declared his candidacy for City Council in the 34th District. This is not an open seat. When I asked Esposito Campaign Manager Morgan Pehme whether Gerry went to the volunteer service event with the intention to raise awareness about his campaign or cause a scene, Pehme said this was not the case.
“He wasn’t coming to the Mayor on an issue of civil disobedience,” said Pehme. “Councilmembers are given a budget of about $1 million for their council offices whereas the community board picks up all the slack for work that the councilmembers don’t do. He has two employees and he’s going to have to let one go. Gerry’s been on the community board longer than anybody. It shows what kind of integrity he has.”
Chris Olechowski, one of two candidates for Community Board Chiar, said board members were astounded that this episode occurred. He believes that the incident is a slap in the face to the entire community and that Mayor Bloomberg owes Gerry and the board an apology.
“The Mayor’s people were making assumptions that Gerry was going to prepare a disruptive activity and there’s nothing that indicated that he would have been disruptive,” said Olechowski. “As far as protesting the cuts on the community board, that’s a legitimate issue that needs to be raised. A decrease, even a minimal one would weaken the need to implement recommendations and make referrals. Cutting funding will weaken our ability to voice our opinions and concerns locally.
Gerry did not want to call advocating for community board funding civil disobedience. He sees his actions as representing the interests of the community board in addition to working with the administration to live up to its obligations regarding the neighborhood’s rezoning plan and address other community concerns.
While Mayor Bloomberg may be willing to entertain dissension from the public, such as the line that snaked out City Hall’s security gates during the Term Limits hearings, the same may not appear true for governmental employees and community leaders who want to air their concerns publicly. As of this week, Mayor Bloomberg and his staff have still not apologized to Gerry. “They said, I should call Nazli [Parvizi, Commissioner for Community Affairs],” said Esposito. “I said, “Since I’m the one being refused entry to the meeting, perhaps it would be appropriate if they called me.’ Nobody every called me. I have not heard from anybody.”