There’s a common tactic that accompanies most development fights: packing a public hearing.
Usually this is carried out by a variety of groups fighting or supporting a given project—advocates, unions, angry neighbors, wary businesses—who enlist (ideally) scores of people to testify at a hearing in favor of their position, filling a room with sign-holding supporters and making it seem like their argument has more support than the opposition’s.
But for a City Council hearing on Coney Island on Wednesday, the Bloomberg administration bused in supporters of its own plan, only to provoke sharp criticism from the Council, as members alleged a misuse of taxpayer funds.
Toward the end of the exhausting hearing—the eight-hour-plus event examined the administration’s plans to redevelop the amusement area—Councilman Simcha Felder asked a person testifying in favor of the city’s plan how he got to the hearing, and learned he had been bused in by the Coney Island Development Corporation, according to multiple people at the hearing. That organization is an economic development arm of city government that focuses on the development and implementation of the Bloomberg plan.
Upon further questioning of a city official, CIDC president Lynn Kelly, the council members were told that the city had three buses running to bring people to the hearing, a fact that did not sit will with at least two council members in attendance. Those members, Mr. Felder and Councilman Robert Jackson, questioned why city funds should go toward lobbying the Council for the administration’s own proposal, particularly as the members said they are barred from using their own discretionary money to fund similar acts. The CIDC promoted the hearing, urging its supporters to testify in its favor.
“Why should a city agency be spending taxpayers’ money to bus people in, in order to try to get their proposal?” Councilman Jackson, who was in attendance, told me Thursday afternoon. “Basically, you have the dealer stacking the deck.”
The Bloomberg administration counters that the CIDC was well within its authority to contract out for the buses, and that not all of those who used the buses were supporters of the city’s plan.
Unlike the typical advocacy group that might bus people in for a hearing, this was open to anyone who wanted to board, said Economic Development Corporation spokesman David Lombino. “It’s within the purview of the CIDC to bus in community members to speak,” he said. “It’s important to note that this thing was open to the general public and people who opposed the plan populated the bus.”
The city paid $1,360 for the three buses, according to Mr. Lombino
Value aside, the act is emblematic of broader Bloomberg administration efforts to counter opposition to its own development plans, efforts that can often be deafening and that threaten initiatives.
The CIDC, which is also a local community development organization, has spent considerable time and resources trying to publicize the city’s plans for Coney Island. In addition to organizing the buses, it’s enlisted the lobbying and community outreach firm Yoswein New York, and has rounded up mailing lists and signatures in favor of the plan at Brooklyn events. When another controversial project, the proposed mega-development for Willets Point in Queens, came up for public review last year, the Bloomberg administration committed $250,000 in funds to a group set up to effectively lobby community members, elected officials, business leaders and others in favor of the controversial project.