By Danielle Douglass
On April 11, 2005, the Supreme Court of the New York Appellate Division handed down a ruling overturning a previous judgment favoring Community Board 2 in a case brought against them by their former District Manager, Olanike Alabi. Alabi sued the board, which serves the Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and downtown Brooklyn areas, for wrongful termination in July of 2003. Originally, the Kings County Supreme Court sided with the Community Board, which voted 23-16 in favor of dismissing Alabi, after citing a number of charges of incompetence.
Alabi filed an Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit to challenge the action of a governmental body, stating that the vote was not reached by the majority of the board’s 49 members. According to CB2’s bylaws, the removal of a district manager requires a majority vote of the entire board. With the appellate court’s decision to overturn the original ruling because of the board’s failure to meet its own requirements, Alabi must now wait for the Supreme Court to rule in accordance with the appellate’s decision. “We are looking to have Ms. Alabi reinstated and to receive her back pay from the board,” says Alabi’s attorney, Roosevelt Seymour. The board can still appeal the latest decision, but they have not thus far.
From the beginning, this case has been mired in controversy because of the political implications of Alabi’s dismissal. Alabi, who was elected district manager in 2000, was a surprising choice to many because she was in her early twenties and was not politically connected. According to sources, who prefer to remain anonymous, Alabi was not the preferred choice of then-district Councilwoman Mary Pinkett, who wielded considerable power on the board as she appointed many of its members. In fact, Pinkett appointed Shirley McRae, the current chair, to the board in the early 90’s. Upon the ousting of former chair Robert Evans, who Alabi served under, McRae, then vice chair, automatically became the acting chairperson. When McRae was later elected to her present position, rumors began circulating that McRae owed her success to Pinkett, and in exchange returned the favor by proceeding to fire Alabi who Pinkett saw as a holdover from Evans’ administration. Suspicions arose when McRae requested an audit without the assistance of the New York State Comptroller; sources claim that the audit was merely an attempt to find dirt on Alabi. Soon after, the board’s finance, personnel and executive committees voted to seek Alabi’s dismissal. According to Seymour, some of the charges brought against Alabi included improper use of city property, allowing a friend to use the board’s copy machine, as well as leaving meetings early. McRae declined to comment on any of the allegations as well as the pending case.
Robert Evan’s, McRae’s predecessor, disagrees with the board’s assessment of Alabi, stating that she did an “excellent job” and followed his instructions while he was chair. Although Evans supports Alabi, he questions whether returning to the board is the best decision for her. “With her skills, her background, and her knowledge she can certainly do better than being the district manager for Community Board 2. Anybody who steps into that job is going to have an uphill battle trying to capture any degree of credibility,” says Evans. He went on to say that the board is no longer a credible entity because they are “completely out of the loop on all of the major discussions and issues in the community” as a result of the current leadership. In fact, many residents served by Community Board 2 have been posting fliers indicating their distrust and disapproval of the board’s leadership.
Members of the board remain deeply divided on the issue of Alabi as well as the present state of the Community Board. Edward Carter, who has been a member of the board for over 30 years says, “[Alabi] was a young and intelligent African American woman that should have been given a chance. She was learning her way through and I don’t think that they gave her much of a chance to get started.” Carter believes that the dismissal was politically motivated. “If you don’t buy into the plans of those who are politically endowed, then you run the risk of getting ostracized.” He went on to say that McRae’s administration has brought about division and political upheaval within the board. “The planning board was a state-of-the-art board where people got along in harmony, but [now] there are too many newcomers who have started to move for power plays. The older people who helped guide this board to the point of being a premier planning board, are now looked down upon, pushed aside and disregarded.”
However, not everyone shares Carter’s perspective; John Quint, who has served on the board for 15 years, praises the current leadership and supports Alabi’s removal. “I think Shirley has done a better job of focusing the board than Bob [Evans]. We are covering a lot more ground; I think we are better informed and our committees are more focused,” says Quint. As for Alabi, Quint believes that “the evidence was enough to justify her removal.” He feels that she will not be welcomed back if she is reinstated because of things he refused to go into that she said about the board during the judicial proceedings. Besides, Quint believes the current district manager, Robert Perris, is doing a wonderful job; Quint noted that Perris was almost unanimously elected by the board, whereas Alabi won by polarity not majority.
Regardless of opinions and this recent decision, Alabi’s case is still pending. Even if the Supreme Court decides to award her restitution and rule to reinstate her, she may have to be voted back in by the Community Board. Notably within recent months, the board has decided to add a new clause to their bylaws amending the process for dismissing a district manager. Perris, the current district manager, says, “We are trying to avoid similar situations in the future.”