MANHATTAN — A group of 10 National Arts Club members — mostly supporters of the embattled former president Aldon James — are calling for changes to the club's constitution, including ending the practice of letting board members rent apartments at the Gramercy Park landmark.
James' opponents, however, believe the move is a retaliatory effort against the current board — whose president Dianne Bernhard has an apartment in the club. Under her stewardship, the board had voted to oust James from his apartments, only to see its decision reversed last week when a Manhattan Supreme Court judge said a new hearing with a neutral arbiter was warranted.
The club, which is being investigated by the state Attorney General and Manhattan District Attorney, has been embroiled in a bitter fight over the past year, with seemingly unending legal challenges with James.
Who gets to rent the club's roughly 40 apartments and what they pay for the real estate that comes with a key to Gramercy Park has long been shrouded in mystery. Under James' 25-year tenure, he was one of several board members who held apartments in the club, for which they paid sub-market rates or nothing at all.
James paid $1,143 a month in rent for an apartment, his brother paid $356 a month and Leitner paid $858 a month, according to tax filings. Club insiders say the trio were also using roughly half of the club’s nearly 40 apartments to hoard flea market junk and antiques — believed to have been purchased with the organization's money.
Bernhard's apartment costs $7,600 a month, according to tax filings.
Former NAC board member Bill Samuels, a self-proclaimed Aldon James supporter, said he wrote the proposed apartment amendment because "It would take out the appearance of inside dealing."
"This should have been changed a long time ago. I've told Aldon this should have been done five or 10 years ago," Samuels said, but said he did not want to discuss the past fight over apartment units.
"There are so many people out there who make this club great again," he said. "I'm hoping this gets people talking about the future of the club, not who did what to whom... We want to stay away from the current argument.”
Samuels posted the five proposed amendments on the bulletin board at the 15 Gramercy Park South club on Thursday, the same day the judge disqualified the board's decision to expel James.
The other proposals include distributing financial reports to members before the annual meeting and changing that meeting from May to September (when year-end finances will be available), making the membership available upon request and to allow candidates for the board to run with at least 25 signatures, instead of the nearly 700 needed now — a move that James had implemented years ago.
Samuels — a former finance chair for the Senate Democrats who now runs the New Roosevelt initiative calling for greater transparency in Albany — denied that the move was an attempt to retaliate against the current board for ousting James.
"This is not aimed at the current board, because [these practices were] done before,” Samuels said.
Others, however, were skeptical.
Board member Cherry Provost said that the changes seem designed to rig the rules to benefit James, who put most of the existing rules in place himself.
"Now he wants to change it so he could get back in power? It's all smoke and mirrors. It's all to benefit him," she said.
Steve Miller, a former club member who wrote a letter to the club more than 10 years ago calling for some of these same changes, said he questions the timing.
"On the surface, I think it's commendable, but why do they suddenly want to do this now?" asked Miller.
"It's obviously long overdue," Miller added, but said, “It strikes me that the idea of banning board members from being residents of the club is designed to get the current board chair off the board."
Roland Riopelle, a lawyer for the club said, "The board is studying [the proposed amendments] and considering whether to advocate for or against them."