Dissolve Columbia Cash Group After Unauthorized Money Move, Stringer Says

By Jeff Mays on December 18, 2011 4:58pm 

HARLEM—Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer is calling for a group distributing $150 million in funds from Columbia University's community benefit agreement with West Harlem to dissolve after he said a board member tried to "unilaterally" distribute more than $85,000 "without informing or seeking the approval of other board members."

"Such conduct is egregious, intolerable and a demonstration of the complete functional crisis of the [West Harlem Local Development Corporation] as an organization," Stringer wrote in a Dec. 15 letter to the WHLDC.

"The LDC must immediately dissolve the current constitution of the board and freeze all of its assets and funds...until the board is substantially reconstituted to ensure a new governance body."

The organization is under investigation by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after DNAinfo reported that the group has spent more on consultants than programming.

Numerous members of the community have criticized the group for failing to successfully organize itself as a nonprofit, hold a public meeting or hire an executive director in the 2½ years since it was created. Columbia has given the group $3.55 million so far but only $700,000 has been spent.

And the group hired two consultants with ties to former Mayor David Dinkins, both of whom left with six-figure paydays before any of the goals were accomplished.

Juanita Scarlett, a newly-hired spokeswoman for the WHLDC, said Stringer's assertions were wrong, adding that she met with the borough president for two hours last week without a mention of the issue.

Scarlett said the board voted in August to provide $85,753.42 for quality of life improvements at Manhattanville and Grant Houses out of $3 million that was set aside for projects at the public housing complexes.

The money was set aside for purchasing air conditioners and fences at Grant Houses and computers and exercise equipment for the Manhattanville community room.

"No one board member attempted to "unilaterally" authorize funding" she said. "The board member brought the item to the board and the board vote."

A Nov. 21 letter from NYCHA to WHLDC president Donald Notice tells him who to make the check out to and where to mail it, but the money was never sent.

Stringer, along with U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilman Robert Jackson, all have staff representatives on the WHLDC board. Stringer's representative was at the Nov. 15 meeting where the funding was again discussed and should have been aware of what was happening, Scarlett said.

"The West Harlem Development Corporation is thrilled to have an open dialogue with
anyone who genuinely cares about the West Harlem community.  We believe those discussions should happen directly with the Corporation, and not through the press," she added.

Stringer has previously called for a halt to the WHLDC's spending. Others, like Congressional candidate Vince Morgan and numerous members of Community Board 9, have called for an audit of the group and a complete reorganization. The WHLDC has said it expects to complete a reorganization, lease a headquarters and hire an executive director by the end of the year.

Stringer said the board needs to be professionalized.

"The LDC must establish criteria for new directors that ensure the board has adequate levels of expertise and competence in not-for-profit board governance, ethics and operations, including mandatory training for all board members," he wrote.

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