June 5, 2020 By Christian Murray
If the community was looking for answers as to what led to the firing of the Chair of Community Board 2 this week, it didn’t get them at last night’s monthly board meeting.
Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, who earlier this week decided not to reappoint chair Denise Keehan-Smith to Community Board 2, refused to provide a reason when asked last night during a full board meeting that was held online.
Meanwhile, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who also weighs in on appointments, did not participate in the online meeting so was not available to field questions. Van Bramer’s constituent liaison Jack Bernatovicz represented him but did not address it.
“I will not explain my reasons,” Lee said, who took time out to join the online meeting despite being on her way to a vigil. “I think it would be a slippery slope. It would not be constructive.”
Keehan-Smith, who had been chair since 2016 and was reelected to the position by the board by a 32-0 vote in November, was not reappointed to the board this week much to the shock of many board members.
Lee said that it is wrong to characterize Keehan-Smith’s departure as if she were dismissed. She said every board member gets a two-year term and has to reapply—and that her term was complete.
“Each member has a two-year term and at the conclusion of those two years there is an application process for each member,” Lee said. “To suggest anyone was dismissed or removed I would say that is simply not true.”
Lee appointed 339 members to the 14 community board in Queens this month. It is very rare, observers say, for a board member with a good attendance record not to be reappointed. In fact, that was the primary reason why good-governance advocates pushed for community board term limits.
“Every single appointment, every single decision of each application was not made lightly,” Lee said, adding that “I will not go—nor am I legally required to—go into all the reasons why I did or did not make my decisions.”
The primary driver for Keehan-Smith’s departure apparently centers around a discrimination complaint filed against her by Community Board 2 district manager Debra Markell Kleinert.. The complaint, which was signed March 19, accused the ousted chair of being “abrasive” and “abusive,” according to the Queens Eagle that was provided with a copy of the document.
Keehan-Smith said she was not aware of the complaint and only learnt of it through the media late last month. Borough Hall is not releasing it, saying it is a confidential.
Keehan-Smith said she has yet to receive a copy of the complaint, nor has she been contacted about an investigation. When she asked borough hall for a copy of it last week, she was told it was confidential and she was not permitted to have it.
However, it still remains unclear whether this was the reason for her not being reappointed.
Patrick O’Brien, a former CB2 board chair, asked Lee whether it was appropriate for an “interim appointee” with a short amount of experience to dismiss a long standing chair who was well received and well respected by board members.
He said that the allegations in the complaint may or may not be true but that it was unfair that Keehan-Smith was not informed about them and did not have an opportunity to even address them.
O’Brien told Lee that there was “a great deal of anger and resentment” in the action she took. He noted that his upset dealt more about the process in which Keehan-Smith was dumped, as opposed to the individuals involved.
Lee, however, insisted that it wouldn’t be constructive to answer.
O’Brien said the board was left with an “utter lack of transparency” and said “what you gave are avoidance answers,” and added that her selection was “a very flawed and unfair process.”
Lee said the process was not flawed and that she stood by her decision. “The process is no different than years passed and I actually don’t think it was an unfair process at all. No single individual is entitled or guaranteed to a seat on a community board.”
Stephen Cooper, a long-serving board member, told Lee that the process was unsettling. “It is a concern when a community board loses its leader without [the board] voting her out.”
Meanwhile, board member Ben Guttmann told Lee that while he understood why she need not explain every appointment he thought that given it was the chair maybe it might be warranted.
Lee said she would reserve comment and that she stood by her appointments.
Van Bramer has yet to respond for comment on Keehan-Smith’s departure.