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Affordable Co-Op Tenants Accuse Board of Election Mismanagement

By Serena Dai | August 21, 2014 3:45pm
 Shareholders for the Betterment of Lindsay Park rallied in August to demand fairer board election practices at their public co-op. The current board has implemented questionable tactics that has led to years of corruption, they say.
Lindsay Park Protests
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WILLIAMSBURG — Poor management and questionable board election practices have plagued one of the city's biggest middle-income housing cooperatives for years, residents said — and now nearly 900 of them are petitioning to change it.

Residents of the Lindsay Park Housing Cooperative at 54 Boerum St. — including Community Board 1 chairwoman Dealice Fuller — claim the co-op's current board uses an unfair and confusing election process that has kept the president in power since 2002.

For years, residents said they have been kept in the dark about the board's operations, stonewalling them from information about everything from the budget to meeting minutes.

Residents submitted the petition Tuesday to hold a vote on changing the election process, earning the support of local Councilman Antonio Reynoso, Rep. Nydia Velazquez and the legal firm Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.

"It's not a democracy," said resident Elizabeth Blizinska, 64. "It's a dictatorship."

Lindsay Park is a Mitchell-Lama housing complex with more than 2,700 units supervised by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It receives property tax exemptions to help maintain affordability, according to an HPD spokesman.

Residents said the current election process is a confusing system that relies on general proxy votes, in which papers are sent to the tenants asking them for their signatures without giving them the option of choosing a candidate.

With general proxies, the board members choose which candidate to vote for on behalf of the signee. In some cases, the tenants are told they need to sign the proxy so that the co-op can reach a quorum for its annual meeting, not knowing they're actually voting for a candidate, residents said.

Though the current system follows the bylaws, some residents allege that board president Cora Austin has been abusing it by using the proxies to re-elect herself and allies — often with signatures obtained from intimidated immigrants or elderly people who don't understand they're signing away a vote.

Others fear that board members abuse the system by racking up proxies by exchanging favors for signatures, multiple tenants claimed.

"This is a system that abuses people's trust," said resident Ronny Wasserstrom, 42, on behalf of a group called Shareholders for the Betterment of Lindsay Park, which has leveled many of the accusations against the board.

Austin declined to discuss the allegations, but previously told the website Brooklyn Bureau that voting machines are placed in buildings allowing residents to pick a specific candidate so that people can nullify their proxy votes.

The shareholders' group hopes to amend the laws to force the board to list the names of candidates, turning the proxies into "directed proxies" so that people signing them must choose who they are voting for, according to the petition.

They also want to limit the number of proxies that can be used in any election so that one person cannot collect more than 91 proxy votes.

"Nothing could be reformed as long as the incumbent members held onto proxies," said Greg Louis, the lead attorney helping with the case.

An HPD spokesman said all procedures for Lindsay Park's board elections, which are supervised by an unspecified, independent third-party company, were in keeping with HPD's rules. The agency would not name the third-party company.

Tenants said this is not the first time they've complained to the HPD about Austin and the board, to no avail.

Members of the shareholders group sent HPD a letter in January 2013 urging the agency to investigate alleged financial and election mismanagement by the board, according to the document shared with DNAinfo. HPD never investigated allegations, according to the group.

The agency told former Councilwoman Diana Reyna in a letter last fall viewed by DNAinfo that it never received notice of any allegations, but an HPD spokesman confirmed to DNAinfo that the city had in fact been contacted by shareholders about the claims.

The spokesman did not say whether an investigation took place.

Austin denied knowledge of any petition, though DNAinfo New York saw memos she sent to residents earlier in August that mention the petition and warn people not to sign it.

Local officials have thrown their support behind the shareholders group in hopes of clarifying the election process. Reynoso and Velazquez representative Evelyn Cruz said they wanted Tuesday's rally to call attention to the current lack of a fair democratic process.

"This is not about a president. This is not necessarily about the board," Reynoso said. "It's about the right to change [representation] if you want."

The co-op's bylaws, which list election rules, state that in order to change the guidelines, the board needs to conduct a special shareholders meeting, which must be scheduled if 25 percent of shareholders request one. The petitioners represent more than the required 25 percent, so the meeting will take place and is required to take place within 10 to 40 days of Aug. 19.

Once the special meeting is held, the shareholders can vote on proposed changes to the bylaws.

"They say we're trying to overthrow them," Wasserstrom said. "I have no interest in that. If they win by fair election, so be it."