Vincent Morgan is not happy with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, which is the organization created to allocate $100 million contributed by Columbia University as part of its Manhattanville expansion plan.
“Over the past couple of years, we weren’t very clear, or at least I wasn’t very clear, as to how [it] was going to respond to determining how to best allocate those resources,” Mr. Morgan told The Observer last week. “Flash forward almost two years later … we’re at a point where we aren’t even anywhere closer to the answers.”
Mr. Morgan, a Democrat running for Congress in the 15th District, which encompasses Harlem and several other neighborhoods in the northernmost reaches of the Upper West Side, has been quite vocal about his concerns with the West Harlem LDC. He told us he first became aware of the West Harlem LDC about five years ago when he was asked, as a graduate of the university, to testify at public hearings about the expansion process. He has remained involved in the expansion ever since through work in local community organizations, and now, as a candidate.
As part of ongoing negotiations about the controversial 6.8-million-square-foot expansion that took place between Columbia and the local community in 2006, the university promised to give back benefits valued at $150 million to the citizens of the neighborhood. However, the West Harlem LDC, which was formed to administer the majority of that money, has come under scrutiny from not just Mr. Morgan, but a growing number of elected officials, who have concerns about how the first funds sent by the school have been spent.
Columbia’s plan, which will take 20 years to complete and involves the construction of a new campus on the 17 acres stretching from 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, was approved by the City Council in December 2007. One year later, the university issued a memorandum of understanding agreeing to give the West Harlem LDC $76 million in benefits and $20 million of in-kind contributions and services over the course of the project. So far, Columbia has given about $3.5 million to the West Harlem LDC, but the corporation has failed to account for any of that cash and hasn’t registered with the State Charities Bureau as required by law.
As a result, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent a subpoena to the corporation asking for documents and records relating to its work. Mr. Schneiderman declined to comment for this story, but sources within his office say the investigation began in response to his “independent concerns” about the LDC. If the group had registered with the Charities Bureau, as required by law, it would be compelled to make public disclosures about how it has spent the funds received so far.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Congressman Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilman Robert Jackson all have staff representatives on the West Harlem LDC’s board. “The staff member represents the elected official … I don’t think you have oversight and control; I think you have a seat at a board table,” Mr. Stringer told The Observer.
Mr. Stringer sent a pair of letters to the West Harlem LDC board early last year expressing his own concerns with the organization. “I want the LDC to meet the highest standards of accountability as well as efficiency,” he said. “Disbursement of money must be made transparently and without any conflict of interest.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Rangel told DNAinfo he welcomed the attorney general’s investigation, but isn’t concerned about wrongdoing at the LDC. “The attorney general would be derelict if someone makes an accusation and he doesn’t look into it,” Mr. Rangel said. A spokesperson for the congressman referred our questions about the LDC to Mr. Jackson and Donald Notice, the chairman of the corporation’s board. Mr. Jackson did not respond to our request for comment.
No contact information for Mr. Notice is listed on the LDC’s website, but he has a phone number and email address with West Harlem Group Assistance, another organization dedicated to providing “community-based housing services,” of which he is executive director. Mr. Notice has not responded to emails seeking comment.
At the end of October, he reported that the LDC was about a month away from having “everything in order” and that, so far, it has spent $302,000 on a jobs programs for teens and roughly $400,000 on consultants. “We’re working extremely hard,” Mr. Notice said. “We don’t want to spend money and not have an infrastructure in place.”
Mr. Morgan still wants answers. “They say that they’ve spent close to $400,000 on contractors and consultants, so I’d like to know who those consultants are, and I’d like to know how those consultants are selected, and I’d like to know what we got for $400,000,” he said.
To him, the main issues with the organization involve its lack of “transparency and accountability” and he describes the answers he’s seeking as quite simple. “You go down to some very basic answers that could be answered and given to the public in a way that is more transparent,” Mr. Morgan said with a laugh. “You know, basic answers that could easily be addressed if there was a web site.”
As of this writing, the official site of the West Harlem LDC contains one page with the heading “New York City and the Harlem Legacy,” followed by more than 2,000 words of nonsensical text. “Are you discover JCPenney printable coupon codes to conserve funds for you?Which provided by coupon sitescan be use to store at JCPenney.com,In further,there are discount codes,marketing codes and free transport codes for JCPenney can support bring the expenses down on brand names like Sephora and American Living,” it begins.
Columbia issued a statement to The Observer that emphasized the university’s commitment to live up to its financial promises to the community and its lack of control over the West Harlem LDC. “In accordance with the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), Columbia has contributed $3.55 million to the benefits fund to date,” the statement said. “It is important to note that the West Harlem Local Development Corp. (LDC) is legally and operationally independent of the university, which therefore has no representation on the LDC board. … Columbia has been and remains committed to fulfilling its obligations under the CBA so that West Harlem continues to benefit from the University’s long-term investment in our local community.”
According to Mr. Morgan, even though the university and the LDC are separate, the issues with the West Harlem LDC are preventing the CBA from being effectively enforced. “The organization is not strong enough to really ask the right questions or demand the level of accountability necessary to enforce the community benefits agreement as a whole,” Mr. Morgan said.
Mr. Morgan believes Columbia and everyone else involved with the process have an obligation to resolve the situation at the LDC.
“I question every person affiliated with this,” he noted, “whether they be an elected official, or whether they be a private citizen to look at the entirety of the board and the process up to this point and just call it like it is and say that it’s dysfunctional.”
When we called Mr. Notice at his office at West Harlem Group Assistance two weeks ago, a woman answered the phone and told us he was “out this week.” She referred us to the group’s director of government and community relations, Stanley Gleaton. Mr. Gleaton declined to answer any questions or even confirm the spelling of his name. “Sorry,” he said before hanging up.
We tried reaching Mr. Notice again a week later, and the woman who answered the phone said he was “in training” and would return next Monday. We asked why he had been away from the group for two weeks.
“No, he was here last week,” she said.
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