NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- New Rochelle Board of Education Vice President Lianne Merchant has sought to use her position to retaliate against a community group that opposed a development project championed by her husband, based on an email obtained by Talk of the Sound.
In an email exchange with fellow board members during the MLK holiday weekend, Merchant voted against restoring a previously scheduled meeting between Hazard Young Attea, the executive search consultants hired to recruit a new Superintendent, and United Citizens For a Better New Rochelle, a community group initially formed to advocate against a development deal involving Forest City/Ratner and the City of New Rochelle but which has since branched out.
Merchant makes clear in the email that her opposition to the meeting is based primarily on UCNBR's opposition to the Echo Bay Project.
"With its proven track record of having single handedly brought down the Mayor and Echo Bay development project (and killed off any possibility for any meaningful waterfront development from any bona-fide developer for the next 10 years) — I would not grant a one-on-one meeting," wrote Merchant.
Merchant did not explain why a community group should be denied a meeting with Board of Education consultants managing a Superintendent search due to their role, real or imagined, in opposing a real estate project or any impact on the political fortunes of a particular individual.
UCBNR has issued a response to this report: United Citizens for a Better New Rochelle Responds to Talk of the Sound Report on Board of Ed VP Lianne Merchant
The HYA-UCBNR meeting was scheduled weeks ago when board member, Jeffrey Hastie, also a co-founder of UCBNR, asked an HYA consultant to meet with UCBNR at Hastie's home.
Merchant's reasoning for her vote against UCBNR stands in stark contrast to public statements by the board.
HYA Consultants and Board President David Lacher have repeatedly stated at public meetings that they were willing to arrange meetings with any individual or group that might have input on defining the Executive Profile for the Superintendent Search.
The entire email exchange raises doubts about the sincerity of board members in seeking all public input into the Superintendent Search process and brings into play questions asked by former school board candidate Vince Malfetano at recent public input forums as to just who is and is not on the board's list to receive private input sessions. The HYA consultants initially offered to share the list with Mr. Malfetano but backed off when Malfetano insisted that he receive a copy of the list or the list be made public.
Malfetano has repeatedly stated that the list of those persons or groups receiving private input sessions would offer a roadmap to understanding the board's thinking as to who in New Rochelle the board considers important and, by extension, who they do not consider important.
United Citizens for a Better New Rochelle is, arguably, one of the most successful and high profile community activist groups in Westchester County. Their efforts to oppose the Echo Bay project garnered wide-spread media coverage over the past year.
Last week, Hastie was informed that HYA was cancelling the meeting. Hastie pushed back, insisting the meeting be restored, which led to the board email exchange this weekend.
Merchant cryptically noted in her email that any such meeting "would be a privilege that would have to have earned (sic)".
Merchant did not elaborate on how individuals or groups in New Rochelle could "earn" her support for board approval for "perks" such as the now-cancelled meeting with HYA.
Greg Merchant, a member of the New Rochelle Industrial Development Agency, appointed in 2011, has been involved in various aspects of the Echo Bay deal going back many years. It was Greg Merchant's company that acted as broker when the City of New Rochelle acquired property on Beechwood Avenue to serve as a new location for the Department of Public Works. The relocation of the DPW City Yard was a key element in the Echo Bay development deal.
Merchant owns a real estate investment company with an office near the site of the proposed Echo Bay development. Some City officials came to suspect that Merchant had positioned himself to act as broker on the Echo Bay Development residential units and commercial space down the road while, as a member of the New Rochelle IDA, he would vote on granting the tens of millions dollars in tax abatements to Forest City/Ratner.
Merchant orchestrated appearances by a number of individuals purporting to be unaffiliated members of the New Rochelle community including Robin Sherman, Senior Vice President at Investment Design Properties Ltd. The President and Chief Executive Officer of Investment Design Properties Ltd. is Greg Merchant.
Sherman spoke at a public hearing on behalf of the Echo Bay Development, falsely representing herself and failing to divulge that she was an employee of Greg Merchant's company.
A Talk of the Sound analysis of the documents submitted to the City Council revealed that the petitions were rife with fraud.
Sherman claimed to have submitted over 500 signatures from her "neighbors" who support the project. A review of the petition signatures indicates that this 500+ figure overstates the number significantly and just 4 of those list East End addresses and could be considered Ms. Sherman's neighbors.
Of the 546 "signatures" claimed, 206 of them had no printed name and 471 of them had no signature. 285 of the "signatures" were not dated and some that were dated were "out of order" or "wrong" in some way suggesting some sort of monkey business. 406 of the "signatures" do not indicate a full address at all or indicate an address not in New Rochelle. There were 87 "non-New Rochelle" addresses. 15 of the signatures give an address in the Bronx, 2 give a Larchmont address, and there is 1 each from Mount Vernon and Port Chester.
46 of the names on the petition appeared to have been forged; multiple "signatures" written in the same handwriting.
A majority of the petition signatures were collected by paid Forest City Employees operating at the New Rochelle train station or through a web site operated by Forest City/Ratner.
Greg Merchant has close ties to the board through his wife and as a political supporter of Dr. Pam Davis. Merchant also has ties to the New Rochelle City Council where he has been a big supporter of Council Member Jared Rice and the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority, which developed the Heritage Homes project, through Steve Horton.
Merchant got himself into hot water over the past year with City officials after openly boasting of his ability to use his political network, his role on NRIDA and the New Rochelle Fund for Excellence to influence public business in New Rochelle and direct various "contributions" and "donations".
When the connection between Sherman and Greg Merchant, established by Talk of the Sound, became known, questions were raised publicly and behind closed doors at City Hall about the appearance of a member of the IDA being so closely linked to a developer with pending business before the IDA. Council Member Lou Trangucci, speaking on WVOX last November, said he was putting Greg Merchant's conduct on the agenda of the next City Council meeting. The following week, the City Council went into Executive Session to discuss Greg Merchant.
The combination of his own indiscreet boasting and his employee's phony petition-drive coordinated by Forest City/Ratner, caused Merchant's support on the New Rochelle City Council to evaporate leading to the decision not to renew Merchant for another term on the New Rochelle IDA.
Given the connections between Greg Merchant and the Echo Bay project -- and the hits her husband has taken recently as support for the deal collapsed -- some observers said they were not surprised that Lianne Merchant would be upset with UCBNR but did express surprise that she would document her views and political motivations in an email.
The email exchange involving Lianne Merchant and UCBNR took place after Lacher, in an email to all board members, called a vote on whether the board should grant an HYA meeting to UCBNR. Lacher added that any such meeting, if approved, would have to take place at New Rochelle High School not Hastie's home, that it would be limited to 45 minutes and that it would take place immediately after the last remaining public input session scheduled for Wednesday, January 22nd.
In the e-mail, Lacher states that he considers the email to be a continuation of a prior executive session in which the board determined which individuals and groups would be granted a meeting with HYA.
Under New York State Opening meeting laws, when a quorum gathers for the purpose of discussing public business, the meeting must be convened open to the public, whether or not there is an intent to take action and regardless of the manner in which the gathering may be characterized. After the executive session, the body must come back into public session to end the meeting. E-mail exchanges after the meeting do not meet this standard and are not considered part of executive session.
Further, the consultants are being paid, as part of the Superintendent search, to hold input meetings so a meeting with HYA requires an expenditure of public funds. Under §105 of the Open Meetings Law, a public body cannot vote to appropriate public monies during a closed session. The entire discussion of which individuals and groups were to be granted "private" meetings should have taken place in open session.