conflict resolution

Manhattan Community Board Leader Cited for Gender Bias

Community Board 12 Chair Richard Lewis, center, was found to have discriminated against female board members in an investigation by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.
Community Board 12 Chair Richard Lewis, center, was found to have discriminated against female board members in an investigation by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

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A Manhattan community board chair is under fire for what investigators deemed improper behavior toward female board members — including demoting women from leadership positions.

An Equal Employment Opportunity probe by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office determined Community Board 12 Chair Richard Lewis blocked or removed women from key roles “on the basis of gender.”

The investigation also found Lewis demonstrated a “pattern of disparate treatment toward women” during public meetings of the board, which serves Washington Heights and Inwood.

The findings were contained in an Oct. 29 letter that capped a seven-month investigation by Brewer’s office into an EEO complaint made by CB12 board member Tanya Bonner.

Brewer’s office recommended that Lewis — who, like other board members, is an unpaid volunteer — undergo sensitivity training.

But Brewer, who appoints Manhattan community board members, said it’s up to the board to decide how to deal with Lewis, who has headed CB12 for 11 months.

The conflict over next steps arose at a Monday night meeting of the board. Attendees included Lewis, who allegedly has threatened legal action against anyone who went public about the investigation.

“The apparent summary findings … were more rhetorical than factual and represent nothing more than a ‘bureaucratic lynching of Afro-American,’” Lewis said in a Nov. 1 email to several board members.

Recording of Contentious Exchange

Bonner said she was blocked by Lewis from becoming assistant chair of the business development committee in February, just weeks after Lewis abruptly removed another woman, Deborah Nabavian, from the chairship of the transportation committee. In September, he took  another woman, Ayisha Oglivie, off of the housing committee.

Those moves were part of a larger problem, Bonner said.

“He would speak to women in meetings — he would berate them. At one point at one general meeting, he called one board member crazy … and brought her to tears,” she told THE CITY. “It’s been a pattern. It’s been obvious to everybody who’s ever attended our meetings.”

Several board members echoed that point, describing what they called Lewis’ quick temper, defensiveness and unprofessional treatment of board members, especially women.

Tanya Bonner, left, and Ayisha Oglivie have pushed to address gender discrimination at CB12.
Tanya Bonner, left, and Ayisha Oglivie have pushed to address gender discrimination at CB12. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

“He has no problem humiliating people,” said Sally Fisher, a CB12 member of three years.

One moment stands out to Bonner: An executive committee meeting in March abruptly turned into a yelling match after Lewis told her she could not speak — then called her “dear.”

Another board member, Elizabeth Ritter, shouted Lewis down for using the “sexist” and “offensive” term, as heard in a recording of the meeting shared with THE CITY.

“Take the MeToo movement someplace else,” Lewis shouted back.

Claims of ‘Confidential’ Letter

Lewis declined to comment on the investigation or the behavior described by multiple women on the board. At the CB12 offices Monday night, he said the probe and communications about it — including the letter to Bonner — were “confidential.”

“It’s your issue if you want to release private information. That’s not my call,” he told THE CITY. “I have nothing to say. I didn’t write it. I have no comment on that whole issue.”

Lewis had previously threatened legal action against members who forwarded an email sent to the executive committee detailing the findings of the investigation by Brewer’s office, emails obtained by THE CITY show.

“The stridency and anger if not viciousness in this email is now what I have had to endure during my administration,” he wrote in one message, describing himself as the victim of “a monthly political agenda and a ‘I gotcha moment’” and a “kangaroo court.”

Later Monday night, the CB12 executive committee voted to address the matter in a closed-door session, which is allowed by the board’s by-laws for special circumstances and personnel issues.

After a nearly two-hour meeting — punctuated by shouting and, at one point, an incensed board member leaving the room to take what she described as a cool-down walk outside — the board voted to draft a resolution officially asking Brewer’s office for more guidance.

On Tuesday, Lewis said in an emailed statement about the resolution: “We look forward towards board members working collegially together and strengthening their relationships.”

Back to the Board

Brewer, in a statement, declined to comment on the investigation of Lewis, citing “the confidentiality of the EEO process.” She added her office cannot interfere with the community board’s business.

“Each community board has a set of by-laws that outline the protocol for removing board members and such determinations should be made by the board,” she said.

Oversight on a discrimination case is “complicated” for a community board, which, while comprised of unpaid volunteers, is still a public body, said attorney Marjorie Mesidor, a specialist in employment discrmination cases.

“They are an extension of the city,” she said, even if boards act as a check on local government.

Brewer’s office has done all it can do with the EEO complaint, Mesidor said. But it’s unclear what next steps should be if the conflict doesn’t die down.

“If it continues, that may not be enough,” she said.

Brewer’s staff declined to release the full report on the investigation of Lewis, telling THE CITY it would need to submit a Freedom of Information Law Request to get a copy.

Fighting for the Community

Bonner is deeply skeptical CB12 will be able to adequately address Lewis’ alleged behavior without “some kind of oversight,” she said after Monday’s meeting.

Oglivie agreed. She described Lewis as only the “tip of the iceberg” of a dysfunctional culture at CB12.

“It’s toxic,” she said. “Especially if you’re really trying to get things done and do the work that you came to do. It’s extremely problematic.”

Still, Bonner and Oglivie plan to stay active on the board.

“It’s not just Richard Lewis’ board. There’s 49 other people on the board,” Bonner said.

Community Board 12 is set to hold elections to choose a new executive committee — including a new chair — in December.

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