Amid controversy over a development plan that would have reshaped Midtown, some former leaders of a local community board covertly secured an $80,000 anonymous donation to hire an outside consultant for a zoning task force that met privately — all actions that may have violated city ethics and transparency rules.

The Manhattan board, Community Board 5, continues to reel from a schism between pro- and anti-development forces that has caused infighting for months. Two of the leaders at the center of it have now resigned and a third has not been reappointed to the board.

The latest in the saga began in March 2023, when two vice chairs of the board, Nicholas Athanail and Craig Slutzkin, signed an agreement to help route the $80,000 private contribution through the nonprofit Historic Districts Council. Later that year, the community board used the funds to pay land use experts to create a community-led zoning plan for the area around Penn Station.

Since July of last year, THE CITY has asked the involved board members and the Historic Districts Council to identify the donor and received no response.

Other board members and CB5’s staff manager have also tried in vain to get more information. Documents obtained through a public records request and emails provided to THE CITY show multiple requests from members and the manager to find out more about the donation. They also show how others within the board tried to ensure that a newly-created task force complied with laws requiring that government meetings be open to the public.

Athanail and Slutzkin were both members of the Community Led Improvement Plan task force, or CLIP, created by the board in October 2022 with the aim of creating, “a resilient, ambitious, pragmatic and comprehensive plan to address the transportation, infrastructure, zoning, socioeconomic, fiscal and urban design needs of an area that has proven vexingly difficult to fix.”

That task force was led by Layla Law-Gisiko, CB5’s former land use chair who that year had run unsuccessfully for the open local state Assembly seat on a platform to stop a state-led redevelopment around Penn.

That plan, backed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, would have allowed developers to build millions of square feet of office, commercial and residential space in the area immediately surrounding the transit hub.

As THE CITY previously reported, Law-Gisiko’s political run got a $49,000 boost from a local property owner, Arnold Gumowitz, who stood to have his Seventh Avenue building condemned under the state plan. Gumowitz did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.

Law-Gisiko, who also leads the preservation group City Club, has also penned several op-eds against the state’s redevelopment plan for Penn Station.

With CLIP, Law-Gisiko hoped to galvanize the community and stakeholders to come up with a better plan than the state’s for the Midtown train station. But even with dedicated volunteers from the board working on them, zoning plans take a lot of time and expertise to bring together. That’s why the task force had planned from the start on fundraising.

Layla Law-Gisiko speaks during a rally against the Penn Station area development plans, Oct. 19, 2022. Credit: Gabriel Poblete/THE CITY

In early 2023, some board members put into motion a plan to hire outside help — with a big anonymous donation.

In a document dated March 30, 2023, Athanail and Slutzkin — at the time, first vice chair and second vice chair of the board, respectively — signed on to an agreement for the Historic Districts Council to serve as the fiscal sponsor for CLIP.

Per that record, HDC would be able to receive the “tax deductible, private charitable contributions,” and would charge a 5% administrative fee. Once done, the agreement would allow HDC to receive money on the task force’s behalf and direct it back to the CLIP.

Three months later, on June 28, 2023, Vikki Barbero, then chair of the community board, signed a consulting agreement with Metropolitan Urban Design (MUD) Workshop worth $87,000. The urban planning consultant studio, the agreement’s clauses said, would help CLIP with its “need of urban planning consulting and facilitation services to develop a resilient, ambitious, pragmatic and comprehensive planning framework.”

Shortly after, on June 30, 2023, board treasurer Aaron Ford sent out an email to CLIP members announcing the funds.

“As we head into the long July 4th Weekend- wanted to share some great news! We just received a $80k donation,” he wrote.

Public payment records show that MUD also received money from the board, with two payments totaling $9,100 to MUD Workshop paid on August 2, 2023. It’s unclear from where the remainder of MUD’s consulting fee was paid. MUD did not respond to a request for comment.

Athanail, Ford, Law-Gisiko, and Slutzkin, too, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Historic Districts Council.

Closed Meeting

The $80,000 donation from a mystery donor raises questions about how outside people or groups can influence community boards, volunteer-led advisory boards that can have enormous influence, especially when it comes to land use and development decisions. Both agreements could have also run afoul of the city charter’s rule that boards can only take action at meetings open to the public.

This spring, on March 8, CLIP gathered at the Seahorse Classroom, one of several bookable event spaces inside Pier 57 in West Chelsea. At the meeting — led by Law-Gisiko — were representatives of transit agencies, including Amtrak and the MTA, as well as people from local preservation groups, liaisons of state and local politicians and private stakeholders.

The public had little time to learn of the meeting, held outside the boundaries of Community Board 5’s district; a public announcement about it had been posted on the board website only the day before.

Law-Gisiko said at the meeting, “this is very much our kickoff working session — the goal is really to continue to engage.”

The same month, city agencies had noted issues with CLIP to Law-Gisiko and other members of the board.

Ahead of the March 8 meeting, the board’s district manager, Marisa Maack, had emailed herself notes from a conversation with the general counsel for Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Peter Torre, according to emails obtained by THE CITY In those notes, Maack ended her own note with two words from her talk with Torre about CLIP: “highly irregular.”

Athanail had also sent an email to Torre on March 5 asking if he could speak with him, Law-Gisiko and Ford about complying with Open Meetings law. Athanail, Law-Gisiko and

Maack then agreed to a call the following day, and on March 7, Law-Gisiko said that they would open up the CLIP meeting to the public.

In a March 15 email to Athanail, Maack and Ford, Torre also urged the task force members to reach out to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) to ensure reporting requirements regarding the CLIP were being satisfied, as well as to reach out to the city law department for any legal concerns.

And on March 22, Law-Gisiko emailed Torre to say she had spoken to an on-call attorney at COIB who told her that “CB5 was required to take a vote of all of its members” to allow the Historic Districts Council to be the board’s fiscal sponsor. She then said that the COIB attorney said “CB5 can cure the problem by taking that vote now.”

Law-Gisiko then argued that CLIP members had relied on board staff to do the right thing, so that’s why they didn’t know a vote for the fiscal sponsor agreement was needed.

Maack, who was also on the email chain, then replied: “I dispute the description of how the fiscal sponsor was acquired. The Board office was removed from the process completely after expressing concerns and the decision and process was coordinated with the Board Officers and Chair of CLIP at the time.”

Maack declined to comment.

Board member Samir Lavingia, in a March 8 email to Athanail and Maack, questioned why he had stopped hearing about the CLIP ever since the October 2023 decision to have the consultants work with a smaller “executive group” within the task force. He also questioned why a notice of meeting at Pier 57 was posted in such short notice on the board’s website.

“I think as much as possible our meetings should be open to the public, noticed, and above board,” Lavingia said. “Ideally this would include finances, but I understand why that would be harder. As far as I know, not many people on the CB know about this project, what it is up to, and how things are going and I think it would be good to give everyone an update.”

‘Backyard’ Brawl

Three of the board leaders who began CLIP and started the wheels in motion to hire MUD are no longer part of the board, or will not be soon.

That week after the Pier 57 meeting, Law-Gisiko tendered her resignation from CB5, saying that “the presence of board members who work or are affiliated with an organization that lobbies and represents special interest is very disturbing,” THE CITY had previously reported. Barbero resigned in February, although it remains unclear why. Athanail resigned the same week as Law-Gisiko, saying the board had become polarized.

As THE CITY has previously reported, the board has been roiled by new volunteer members who have an affiliation with the pro-development, “yes in my backyard” movement. In particular, links with the YIMBY group Open New York have sparked controversy.

Lavingia, whose day job is campaign coordinator for Open New York, a group promoting housing development, became chair of the board back in March. Several members, including Law-Gisiko, have characterized Lavingia’s and other members’ affiliation to Open New York as an infiltration and accused them of representing the organization’s views rather than their own.

In a statement to THE CITY, Lavingia said that he’s had concerns about the CLIP’s funding and transparency since its early days.

“In the interest of transparency, decisions such as these should absolutely, at a minimum, be discussed in the open at meetings where Board Members and the public can weigh in,” Lavingia said in the statement, “and this is something I would certainly ensure happens as long as I am Board Chair.”

Certain members also proposed a measure back in April to disallow employees, board members and lobbyists of advocacy groups from serving on leadership positions or from voting on issues related to their group’s stated purpose. However, that measure has been tabled by the board at subsequent meetings.

Another board member involved in the CLIP task force, Slutzkin, is no longer serving on the board. Board members are appointed by borough presidents, and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine did not grant Slutzkin another term.

Levine’s office said they could not specify why Slutzkin was not reappointed. But Slutzkin told the New York Post he thought it may have had to do with his vote on another controversial local issue.

Slutzkin drew headlines recently for voting for Community Education Council 2’s resolution calling on the Department of Education to review whether there should be a ban on transgender girls in school sports.