Incumbent chair Gigi Li fends off challenger, retains majority of board’s confidence
Lower East Side Last Tuesday’s Community Board 3 meeting started like any other. Board members mingled beforehand, secured copies of the agenda from the front of the room, and took their seats in the first few rows of Cooper Union’s Rose Auditorium. One member, Chad Marlow, worked the room a bit like a politician, pausing to chat with colleagues and laughing after each exchange.
Marlow, 43, a senior policy adviser with the city’s Dept. of Health, was vying that night to unseat incumbent chair Gigi Li, who has led CB 3, which covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown, since 2012. Li has been accused in recent months of racial insensitivity and mismanagement by a coalition of board members unhappy with her leadership.
The vote itself was unusual; CB 3 hadn’t had a contested race for chair in five years. And this year, of the six elected positions on the board, only the chair’s seat had more than one candidate.
“It’s close,” said Marlow, before the vote. “I don’t think anyone knows at this point.”
Marlow ran on a promise to streamline board meetings – some of which have recently stretched to four hours and beyond – and criticized Li for her handling of some of the board’s more contentious issues.
“I think, unfortunately, in large part because of the way this board has been operated, the community has lost a lot of faith in our board,” said Marlow in his statement to CB 3 ahead of the vote.
In her pre-vote statement, Li, 32, cited progress in the community that’s been made during her tenure.
“Together we have made Essex Crossing a reality, we fought back after Superstorm Sandy, and we reclaimed public housing from an ill-conceived infill plan,” said Li, who also spoke of her experience as an immigrant and of her roots in the community. “I had a really difficult time figuring out where I belong. As I grew up, no matter where I went to school, where my travels took me, I always found my way back here. This community is my home.”
Li, who co-directs the non-profit Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, said moving forward she is “committed to structural and leadership changes that I believe are the core issues.” She did not respond to requests to elaborate on how specifically those changes will be implemented.
After listening to each candidate, members filled out the nominating committee’s ballot and got back to other board business. And in the end, the race wasn’t close; Li received two thirds of the board’s support, garnering 31 votes to Marlow’s 15. Four of the board’s 50 members were not present and did not vote.
Marlow was gracious in defeat, and said the idea that there was a coalition of members aligned against Li is a little overblown.
“It was always just a completely open group that anyone could come to talk about their concerns with the board,” said Marlow in an interview. “I imagine as board members we’ll continue to talk amongst each other about concerns that we might have, but there’s never been anything formal about it and I don’t expect it will become formal now.”
Marlow said he wasn’t disappointed with the outcome of the vote because several important issues were highlight as a result of him challenging Li.
“Obviously you don’t run for something not wanting to win, but I think the fact that one in every three members of the board expressed enough dissatisfaction that they wanted change, I think sent a strong message that the status quo is just not good enough for this board,” said Marlow. “Being able to have communicated that I think is extremely valuable, and hopefully something good will come out of it.”
Marlow said his candidacy highlighted the board’s need to be more democratic, transparent, inclusive and efficient.
“The problems in the board caused the election, not the other way around,” said Marlow. “I think we all want to work together. But it’s going to be important to make the changes that are necessary to enable us to do that as effectively as possible.”
But how does any governing body recover from an attempted coup? The theme among board leadership seemed to be one of unity no matter who was elected, with service to the community being a priority over internecine squabbling.
“Regardless of who wins, we’re still going to have the same issues we had last month,” said treasurer Bill LoSasso before the vote.
“Regardless of who you vote for, there are no losers and winners,” agreed second vice-chairperson Ricky Leung. “Tomorrow when you wake up, there are many issues to work on, the work keeps going.”
First vice-chairperson Herman Hewitt, a longtime board member, called for unity in order to effectively serve the community.
“My heart is to work with the community, it’s the only reason I’m on this board,” he said. “As long as we can have our differences and work in the interest of the community, I think it’s good. We should put the neighborhood’s interest before anything else.”
CB 3’s other elected positions went uncontested, with Hewitt re-elected as first vice-chairperson, Leung as second vice-chairperson, Carlina Rivera as secretary, Jamie Rogers as assistant secretary, and LoSasso as treasurer. Rivera and Rogers voted for Marlow, while Hewitt, Leung and LoSasso all voted for Li.
Looking ahead, Marlow said he’s sure some on the board will react negatively to his challenge, but “I think on a whole most board members just view an election as part of the process and now we’re going to get back to work.”
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