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CB 11 Black Members Say They Were Displaced for Latinos to 'Appease Quotas'

By Jeff Mays | April 3, 2013 9:31am

HARLEM — African-American members of Community Board 11 in East Harlem say they were "sacrificed" in the effort to increase the number of Latino participants on the board.

"I think it's absurd. We need to stop the division because we are all going to wind up losing East Harlem," said JoAnne Lawson, an African-American member of CB 11 for the past decade who was not reappointed.

Lawson had been the chairwoman of the housing and oversight committees.

Latino community members launched petitions in February asking Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to increase the number of Latinos on the board to be more in proportion with the Hispanic makeup of the neighborhood, known as El Barrio.

 Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, here speaking to the New York Safe Act on Feb. 24, 2013, appointed more Latinos to Community Board 11. He did so after complaints that the makeup of the board didn't reflect the neighborhood, but in doing so drew the ire of the black community. 
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, here speaking to the New York Safe Act on Feb. 24, 2013, appointed more Latinos to Community Board 11. He did so after complaints that the makeup of the board didn't reflect the neighborhood, but in doing so drew the ire of the black community. 
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Only 15 members of CB 11's 46 members self-identified as Latino, which put the percentage of Latinos at 32.6 percent. U.S. Census figures show that East Harlem South is 52.7 percent Hispanic while East Harlem North is 47.5 percent.

Many believe the accurate number is even higher because of the presence of undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

Stringer announced the appointees on Monday, putting the total number of members on the board at 50. The number of Latino board members jumped to 20 from 15, putting the percentage of Hispanics at 40 percent.

"I'm happy. We think that's a win," said Yma Rodriguez, one of the Latino CB 11 members who launched the petition. "We did well. We increased the numbers, and we commend the borough president and [East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito] for being supportive and looking at our request.

"I don't think there's a fight between African-Americans and Latinos," she added.

But longtime CB 11 member Alvin Johnson, who is African-American, said he was extremely concerned. He cited five African-American board members who were not reappointed and replaced with Latinos.

The decision not to reappoint Lawson, who is known for her activism surrounding development, landlord and tenant issues, is the ultimate smack in the face, Johnson said.

"Be careful of what you ask for and reach for because the executive body of the housing committee just got wiped out in order to appease quotas," he said.

Stringer's office dismissed the charges.

“Under the leadership of the Manhattan borough president, community board members are appointed through a unique and independent screening process in which panels make recommendations based on merit, and draw upon expertise and diversity to inform their decisions," Audrey Gelman, a spokeswoman for Stringer, said in a statement.

Mark-Viverito said she made a concerted effort to appoint more Latinos because of the concerns. That doesn't mean, however, that African-Americans were short-changed in the process, she added.

African-Americans make up 35.5 percent of the population in East Harlem North and 24.6 percent in East Harlem South, according to U.S. Census statistics. There are at least 11 African-American members of CB 11, not including two Haitian-Americans and an Ethiopian.

"Looking at the demographics, I think there should be more Latino members and it should be reflective of the realities, maybe 26 members," Mark-Viverito said. "We are very collaborative. Just because you are not of a racial and ethnic group does not mean you are aren't in tune with the needs of the community."

Mark-Viverito said she had concerns about Lawson's attendance given the records she received from Stringer.

"There are 10 monthly board meetings and there was a real lack of participation," Mark-Viverito said of Lawson.

A red flag is raised if CB 11 members miss five or more monthly meetings. According to CB 11 minutes, Lawson was absent from three meetings and excused from one.

By comparison, eight people who missed at least five meetings are still on the board.

"I'm sure I was sacrificed, because people with poor attendance got reappointed," Lawson said.

Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation and another of the petition organizers, said she, too, was upset that Lawson was not reappointed. She said the issue with the number of Latinos on the board and Lawson's failure to be reappointed show that the process of selecting community board members is too focused on politics and not the best interests of the community.

"There is probably more political motivation involved because she has been systematically challenging property owners for not providing services to tenants," Ortiz said. "She has been at the forefront of fighting for affordable housing."

Stringer has touted community board reform and an overhaul of the community board selection process as one of his major accomplishments as he runs for comptroller. An independent panel of community organizations screened candidates to make sure they met certain requirements, according to Stringer's office.

Ortiz believes the process is still broken.

"Why are there people on the board who contribute very little beyond a “Yes sir, ma’am” vote, who never attend meetings, or who are more concerned with driving business to their establishments?" Ortiz asked.