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Community Board Revives 'Illegal' Closed-Door Liquor License Meetings

By Serena Dai | May 20, 2015 7:24am
 Community Board 4 District Manager Nadine Whitted has repeatedly violated open meetings laws while working for the board.
Community Board 4 District Manager Nadine Whitted has repeatedly violated open meetings laws while working for the board.
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DNAinfo/Serena Dai

BUSHWICK — A Bushwick community board with a history of making liquor license decisions behind closed doors — in violation of state laws — has once again banned the public from a meeting.

Community Board 4 District Manager Nadine Whitted told DNAinfo New York that the public is "not always" allowed at committee meetings where members discuss liquor licenses with business owners. Her comment came after a reporter was barred from attending Monday night's meeting at the 83rd Precinct.

Whitted argued that public safety meetings — where liquor licenses are discussed — need to be private because conversations with police sometimes contain "very, very sensitive information," which she defined as "anything of a criminal nature."

"We are working directly with the police department on issues of location in our district," Whitted said.

"The people who needed to be here were here," she said of Monday's invite-only gathering.

She has previously said that businesses that apply for liquor licenses in the community don't want people present during their discussions.

But committee meetings are subject to open meeting laws, meaning the board is legally required to notify the public about gatherings and allow access to them, according to state and local officials.

This is at least the third time in the last two years that Bushwick's board has blocked the public from attending such meetings.

In 2013, DNAinfo New York reported that the board had been illegally hiding information about which businesses were applying for liquor licenses. The same year, the board was blasted by locals and elected officials after privately voting on the controversial Rheingold development, a massive project with 80-foot tall towers opposed by many locals.

It's illegal for the board to have a "blanket policy" of privacy for meetings, said Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

Committees are allowed to go into private executive sessions, but all meetings with two or more community board members must start off as public, he said.

In order to close a meeting, a majority of the community board must then vote on it, Freeman added.

"They have to justify closing the doors," Freeman said. "They can’t engage a blanket policy under which the meetings would be closed because of the possibility of going into executive session."

The board tried to make similar arguments for secret meetings back in 2013, saying they wanted to defend the livelihoods of would-be businesses. They later agreed to stop withholding the information after coming under pressure from DNAinfo and state government officials.

Since 2013, the board's public safety committee — whose opinion serves to advise the State Liquor Authority — has claimed to have stopped hiding information about applicants.

Yet when DNAinfo arrived at Community Board 4's committee meeting to discuss liquor licenses, which was scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. at the 83rd Precinct, 480 Knickerbocker Ave., on Monday, Whitted and Community Affairs Detective Damarys Franco said the gathering wasn't open to the public.

City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who represents the area, said he'd never heard of private meetings being a problem at CB4 but would plan on discussing it with the board if it was an issue.

City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who plays a role in nominating board members, declined to comment.

And Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, whose office appoints board members, said he takes open meeting laws "seriously" and expects the boards to do the same.

"Our office had a comprehensive conversation today with the leadership of Community Board 4 to emphasize this," Adams said in a statement on Tuesday.

Whitted — who was joined at the meeting by board members, known liquor license attorneys and police — initially defended the board's closure of the meeting Monday night. But, when pressed by a reporter, she later changed her story, saying, "We didn't have a meeting at 6:30 today."

Community boards that don't follow open meeting rules can be subject to lawsuits from the public, Freeman said, which can lead to open meetings seminars, attorney's fees or court orders to nullify board actions.

The boards are "the best form of local democracy in New York City" and keeping them open to the public matters, Freeman said.

"They serve as the real connection between residents within a neighborhood community and city government. They perform a critical function," he said.

"The more open they are, the better they will be able to carry out their duties."