NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- In a matter fraught with peril for New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, a leading Democratic candidate for Westchester County Executive, Talk of the Sound has learned that the City government he leads failed to apply its own Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy to a $100 million public-private partnership to replace federally-subsidized public housing in the largely African-American section of New Rochelle.
Bramson is currently running for the Democratic nomination against Westchester Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins who is seeking to be the first African-American County Executive in the history of Westchester. Jenkins declined to comment for this article.
New Rochelle's Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy Statement Regarding Construction and Economic Development, adopted by the New Rochelle City Council in 1996, applies to any development project or land disposition agreements "funded" or "supported" by the City government. The policy is also referred to by its original council designation, "Resolution 205".
Heritage Homes is a new development which will replace the Hartley Houses which is being built, in part, by City funds.
The new development is located in the heart of City Council District 3, a "Black Opportunity District" created in 1993 as the result of a Federal lawsuit brought by the NAACP. The organization charged that New Rochelle's voting system was discriminatory. The settlement of that groundbreaking lawsuit was followed by the election of African-American Council Member Rhoda Quash, the first person to hold the District 3 seat on the City Council.
There have been numerous complaints about the Heritage Homes projects within the African-American community, many of which surfaced at a meeting of The Gathering of Men last December. The meeting was emceed by Mark McLean, a former NAACP Vice President and Lieutenant with the New Rochelle Fire Department.
Resolution 205 was intended to give preference to qualified minority New Rochelle residents for skilled construction jobs and contracting opportunities. Instead, the entire project is being built by MacQuestern Construction Management, LLC a Mount Vernon builder with close ties to Steve Horton who was, up until recently, a City Councilman in Mount Vernon. Horton gave up his seat, deciding not to run for re-election as the Heritage Homes project was set to ramp up. Steve Horton is also the Executive Director of the New Rochelle Housing Authority which is the local agency responsible for both Heritage Homes and the Hartley Houses.
MacQuestern has hired just a handful of unskilled minority laborers from New Rochelle during the recently completed Phase I. Critics contend the $12 an hour jobs were "just for show". They point out that MacQuestern has not hired any skilled laborers for high-paying jobs on Phase I and that they subcontracted to just a single minority contractor from New Rochelle and only for a single day of work.
Despite strong efforts to resist acknowledging a problem, extensive interviews with current and former City officials, along with records obtained exclusively by Talk of the Sound, show the City of New Rochelle failed to apply the City's nondiscrimination and employment opportunity policy to the Heritage Homes project despite investing local taxpayer funds in the development.
Mayor Noam Bramson is the the only current member of the City Council to have voted on Resolution 205.
On October 22, 1996, then-Council Member Rhoda Quash introduced Resolution 205 in response to the City's failure to protect the interest of qualified minority residents in obtaining work on the New Roc City project. Following a march through City streets, Quash obtained reluctant support from the City Council which passed her resolution on a 5-2 vote.
In casting his vote for Resolution 205, Bramson gave a lukewarm endorsement.
I vote 'yes' on this legislation. But I do so in the hope that we will soon reach a point as a community and a nation when we no longer view each other through a racial lens and these kinds of classifications and distinctions are not a part of public policy or private action. I believe very deeply in a colorblind society and I support this only in the sense that it helps us achieve that ideal. (emphasis added)
New Rochelle City Council Members, who spoke with Talk of the Sound on background, admitted they had not heard of Resolution 205 until a few weeks ago.
City Council records show how language in an earlier draft of Resolution 205 was removed in Council meetings prior to the October 22, 1996 meeting. That language contained more absolute requirements but the "shalls" and "wills" in an early draft were replaced with "shoulds" and "trys".
The result was a watered-down policy statement that encouraged but did not require local minority hiring.
The final version of Resolution 205 did, however, retain two important elements for how the policy is applied and how that application of policy can be monitored. The scope of the conditions where Resolution 205 applies is broad. There are specific requirements placed upon the developer to file documents on a monthly basis for the life of the project.
In the case of Heritage Homes, these documents were never filed.
The scope of Resolution 205 covers not just "City funds", direct financing, but uses the open-ended term "City supported" which can mean free land transfers, low-cost leases, tax abatements, PILOT programs and more. The implication of Resolution 205 is that it applied to every public-private partnership in New Rochelle for the past 16 years.
Questions remain as to whether Resolution 205 was ever applied in the past and what will happen with current and near-future projects like Echo Bay, the New Rochelle Armory, the new DPW Yard on Beechwood Avenue, and Mariano Riviera's church on North Avenue.
Resolution 205 requires 3 sets of documents:
1. Before work begins Prospecting Bidders must be sent a copy of the City's Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy Statement Regarding Construction and Economic Development as described in Resolution 205. Bid notices and RFPs must include a statement encouraging minority businesses to submit bids to the City. Developers must be sent a copy of the City's Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Policy Statement Regarding Construction and Economic Development as described in Resolution 205 along with copies of any minority and employee training and placement program in which the City currently participates, as well as, a statement directing developers to consider qualified contractors based in New Rochelle for required contract work.
2. Once work begins, the Developer must submit monthly utilization reports in a form provided by the City indicating the number and percentage of minority men and women employed at a job site.
3. The Developer must also submit, on a bi-weekly basis, certified payroll sheets listing employees.
The issue of Resolution 205 with regard to Heritage Homes was first raised by New Rochelle resident Ronald Payne, a member of the International Laborers Union, at a meeting of The Gathering of Men at the Remington Boys & Girls Club on December 19th. Payne addressed questions to Council Member Jared Rice who was the featured speaker at the meeting.
Rice had come to speak about the Youth Works Construction Training Program, a New York State-funded program offered through the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority and the New Rochelle Youth Bureau. Rice, along with McLean and others, had played a role in securing funding to train 14 local minority youths in a six week program. The Youth Works Construction Training Program has no direct connection to Heritage Homes. Graduation took place after the completion of Phase I although Rice says the hope is that some of the graduates will find work as unskilled labor on Phase II. A second training program is anticipated this spring.
Rice took notes and offered to help get answers to the many questions raised and discussed at the meeting including the question of whether Resolution 205 applied to the developers and contractors of Heritage Homes and information as to the ownership of the underlying property.
The following day, on December 20th, Talk of the Sound followed up with City of New Rochelle officials to get answers and obtain records.
Does Resolution 205 applies to the Heritage Homes project? Have any City funds been used in this project. We specifically want to know how HUD, CBGB or other monies made their way to that project. Do those sorts of funds get sent to the City which then takes possession of the money and then disburses it to entities connected with that project or what? Is there any other money that went from the City or was directed by the City to Heritage Homes or related entities or developers. I would also want to know if Corporation Counsel has offered an opinion on this matter or based on my inquiry whether she believes 205 applies to Heritage Homes in any way.
There was no official response for more than a month.
Council Member Rice, having made his own inquiries stated to Talk of the Sound that he was being told it was the position of the City that Resolution 205 did not apply.
Two weeks ago, City spokesperson Kathy Gilwit responded to our inquiry from December 20th by stating that the City of New Rochelle transferred $50,000 of Affordable Housing Fund monies to Heritage Homes for Phase I.
A week after that, Gilwit provided Talk of the Sound with an unexpected position on Resolution 205 from the City's lawyer.
Corporation Counsel did not provide a prior legal opinion so there is no record. However, it is the Corporation Counsel's opinion that Resolution 205 is applicable to Heritage Homes. The City's resolution is consistent with those of Westchester County, New York State and the Federal government. In terms of payroll, records for the project can be made available. I will contact you when these records are available. (emphasis added)
Documents provided yesterday as a final response to our request for records do not include any communications with prospective bidders or developers nor do they demonstrate that the winning bidder received any notification of City policy under Resolution 205.
The documents did not include certified payroll sheets listing employees bi-weekly payroll.
The only documents provided by the City of New Rochelle were Monthly Utilization Reports for Heritage Homes which appeared to have been prepared to be filed with the New York State Homes and Community Renewal Office of Fair Housing and Economic Development.
None of the documents purportedly filed with the City of New Rochelle in compliance with Resolution 205 is time-stamped or marked as "Received" by the City of New Rochelle. Documents filed to comply with legal requirements are typically time-stamped and marked "Received".
The Monthly Utilization Reports do not appear to be City documents based on a City form but rather forms provided by New York State and filed with the Homes and Community Renewal Office of Fair Housing and Economic Development. They are documents that the developer would file with New York State regardless of New Rochelle policy.
The Monthly Utilization Reports do not indicate the percentages of minorities hired. There is no space in the form to indicate the percentages of minority workers. On some of the forms, an employee is indicated under the "total" column but not under a column for a particular minority.
The Monthly Utilization Reports do not have a racial/ethnic filed for white minorities which would include women, LGBT, age, national origin, disabled or Vietnam Veterans.
The records appear to be only recently obtained from the developer in order to create the appearance that Resolution 205 was applied to Heritage Homes during Phase I. The absence of time-stamps suggests otherwise. The failure to produce corresponding certified payroll sheets listing employees bi-weekly payroll adds to the impression that the City may not be fulsome in their response to our inquiry.
Phase II of Heritage Homes is expected to begin in the coming months.
Talk of the Sound will explore in a future article whether Resolution 205 has ever been applied in New Rochelle since the Resolution was adopted as City policy in 1996.