Mayor and Council Appoint Political Campaign Donor’s Son to Replace Brother on Zoning Board of Appeals

After a brief pause to ponder ethics and propriety, the mayor and his city council charged through a wall of moral criticisms to appoint their political campaign donor’s young son to replace his own brother on the most influential board in the city.

The board decides

Many in the city are unaware that a seven-member board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council are responsible for dramatic changes to our city. While the council and various departments create and enforce the numerous zoning ordinances, these rules may be overridden. To accomplish this, a developer submits an application to the Zoning Board of Appeals. This board then grants variances for almost anything.

Under this recent composition of the board, almost no variance is too extreme. In the past two years, variances like twice the height and half the parking are all fair game. So, you can see why each member of this exclusive board has so much power to shape the city.

A vote deferred

Last year, the City Council unanimously appointed Anthony Gjelaj to this board. At the time, most did not find the appointment interesting apart from the young age of the 25-year-old appointee. However, after just over a year, Anthony no longer wishes to serve on the board. And on October 6, a name for his proposed replacement appeared on the City Council agenda for a vote.

The younger 23-year-old Christian Gjelaj now stood to replace his own brother. Considering the oddity of this switcheroo appointment, a quick investigation revealed why. The father of the Gjelaj brothers, Lewis Gjelaj, is a property manager and owner of a building which houses the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency. Moreover, he donates generous sums to the political campaigns of the mayor and two council members. With this revealed, the community realized the political intrigue involved in this appointment.

City Council - Corazon Pineda-Isaac
Corazon Pineda-Isaac – credit: Elizabeth Diaz

After community pushback, the council deferred the vote on this donor’s other son. And with this plan exposed, some hoped that the mayor would find another candidate to fill this vacancy.

Back on the agenda

But, accusations such as nepotism have never bothered this administration. So, Christian Gjelaj stayed on the next council agenda held two weeks later on October 24th. This time, the vote was not deferred. And in the customary “committee of the whole” session preceding the council meeting, people from across Yonkers voiced their contempt.

Familiar speakers like Philip Armstrong and Eileen O’Connor expressed their concern at the applicant’s age. Both believed that the mayor could find a more “seasoned” candidate across the vast city. Fellow Yonkersite James Carpenter brought some levity by saying, “I knew everything when I was 23, and then I turned 24.”

City Council - Jeanette Garcia
Jeanette Garcia speaking – credit: Elizabeth Diaz

Another criticism was lack of representation on these boards. Mirroring the mayor’s administration, many board members are white upper-middle-class residents from the east-side of Yonkers. And in a majority-minority city, Jeanette Garcia wondered why no members were minorities living in her west-side neighborhood. Amplifying her concern was the day-to-day impact the ZBA’s decisions directly have on the residents this area most hardest-hit by new development.

If you’re looking for candidates, reach out. I’m available.

Craig Mariette – resident of Yonkers

But Hector Santiago cut the council deep with allegations of pay-to-play intertwined with nepotism. Citing the appointee’s father’s generous campaign donations, he concluded his remarks by asking, “how much is this seat worth? […] I ask the council to name their price or to vote ‘no’ on this appointment.

The appointee makes his case

With a litany of criticisms levied, Christian Gjelaj himself took to the podium. Through questions from the city council-members, he described his university education, political internships, and work in finance.

City Council - Christian Gjelaj
Christian Gjelaj speaking on his appointment to the Zoning Board of Appeals – credit: Elizabeth Diaz

Gjelaj explained that he is a lifelong resident of Yonkers and wishes to serve the city. In an exchange with council-member John Rubbo, he expressed his belief that his finance background would aid his decisions on the Zoning Board of Appeals. He further noted to member Corazon Pineda-Isaac that he had internships with former U.S. Representative Eliot Engel and in Mayor Mike Spano’s office; thus giving him government experience.

But the real concern some on the council would be how Mr. Gjelaj would vote as a member of this powerful board. Both Pineda-Isaac and Council President Lakisha Collins-Bellamy inquired about past and current items before the ZBA. Seemingly caught off-guard, Gjelaj stated that he did not know of any current items before that board, nor would he comment on any previous decisions it had rendered.

Gjelaj had a similarly opaque answer to a direct question from council-member Anthony Merante. The accountant wished to know if Gjelaj had any absolute or even relative caps on variances he may grant. A recent example cited in the preceding real estate committee described a development meant to have 300 parking spaces per the City ordinance. However, they intended to apply for a ZBA variance to allow for only about 100. Though Gjelaj cited a non-binding ruling from a lower New York State court on a 15% variance, he did not wish to adhere to that, or any, number. Ultimately, Mr. Gjelaj resorted to a defense that he didn’t know every single fact about any development, so he wished to not comment on any past, present, or future project in Yonkers.

The council to the defense

The issue of Christian Gjelaj’s youth became a topic yet again during the meeting, but this time from Majority Leader Tasha Diaz and Minority Leader Mike Breen. In their comments, both claimed Gjelaj’s youth was an asset, and those residents concerned with his lack of real-world experience are discriminatory “ageists.” Breen even compared him to the famously young 26-year-old Yonkers’ Mayor Nick Wasicsko of “Show Me a Hero” fame. Although, Mr. Gjelaj was not aware of this man or his well-known story.

Accusations of nepotism were addressed head-on by council member Shanae Williams. She attempted to dispel claims of nepotism by noting that this board position was not paid-not to his brother and not to him.

Similarly, Collins-Bellamy tamped down the related issue of his father being a major donor to the Mayor. The Council President succinctly and wryly quipped that she doesn’t wish to hold Christian’s father’s actions against him, just as she wouldn’t want her own father’s actions held against her.

City Council - Breen and Rubbo
Mike Breen and John Rubbo – credit: Elizabeth Diaz

And lastly, many community speakers were taken aback when both Minority Leader Breen and Majority Whip Rubbo attributed pushback to this appointment as a result of the political “funny season.”

The inevitable vote

When the Council President then called the vote, there was little suspense. Diaz, Rubbo, Breen, and Williams all voted “yes” to approve Mayor Mike Spano’s appointment of Christian Gjelaj to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Pineda-Isaac and Merante voted “no,” while both citing no ill-will towards Gjelaj and wishing him a successful career. The only unknown came as City Council President Collins-Bellamy stood in a moment of contemplation as the final vote. Though four votes were already secured, Collins-Bellamy chose to abstain.

After the meeting, residents who spoke against Gjelaj huddled with the newest member of the ZBA in the outer hallway of the council chambers. Understanding they would now have to work with this man, they pleaded to be heard. With a reserved posture, Christian Gjelaj listened as residents explained their need for better communication with this board that is changing the city faster than many can bear.

City Council - Santiago and Gjelaj
Hector Santiago and Christian Gjelaj – credit: Elizabeth Diaz

Whether he will be both an ear to, and a voice for, the people of Yonkers remains to be seen. Concerns further exist on whether he will leave the board after a year just as his older brother did. Regardless, as this appointment has exemplified, some residents are no longer content with the status quo appointment process. They demand that it be open and inclusive. They want the opportunity to be notified and offered seats on these boards; regardless of who their brother or father may be.

Watch the full City Council meeting below

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Follow the discussion

  1. As a neophyte to Yonkers Politics and its ebbs and flows I had been quite impressed and disappointed by some of our elected political leadership. The stewardship that most citizens like myself vote for and expect from those we elect to represent us.
    Since Nov of 2022 after learning of a 16 story building in my neighborhood and the problems we foresee with it I decided to attempt to do my part to reason with the City Zoning and the Planning departments. At the same time redistricting was going on so I also attended those meetings. My area was moved from District 3 represented by Tash Diaz to District 2 represented By Corazon Pineda Isaac in the 2nd district. I learned that each district is composed of about 35 thousand people and that the Three west side districts were much smaller than the 3 east side districts in geographic area. We from Rockledge Neighbors and Van Courtland Crest fought the proposed building but we were opposing a very favorable developer in the City of Yonkers. Someone who in fact has once worked in City Hall and we lost in both Zoning and Planning although at the Planning meetings we had 4 members speak against the outrageous variances given the developer. The point I am working towards is that some people on the Council had impressed me. One being John Rubbo who seemed to me a very good candidate for our next Mayor after he has had a few years experience on the City Council. Someone I believed to be intelligent and having the best interest of the City at heart.
    During the Last council meeting I and other activists were attacked by Tasha Diaz, Mike Breen and John Rubbo for taking a position that we want someone with experience other than being related to a big political donner representing us on the Zoning Board. This board as it existed has treated the Citizen complaints with nothing but contempt and refuses to even consider anything we comment on in their deliberation. We attend the meetings and have been made very aware that we play no part in their deliberations. So for these 3 politicians to stand up and call our request for them to represent us as “silly Season”. The contempt that these 3 politicians showed for the will of their constituents and the need to play political games with our request will not sit well with the citizens of Yonkers. Needless to say, Mr Rubbo, Mr Breen or Ms Diaz will not ever be considered a viable mayoral candidate within the group of activist who we represented at that meeting. In fact it will make supporting them for any office difficult.
    Philip Armstrong
    Rockledge Neighbors

  2. There is a saying in architectural circles that “We shape our buildings and then our building shape us”. This statement is an acknowledgment of the lasting power of the built environment to impact the quality of our lives. It seems that our mayor, many city council members and zoning board members see their decisions as purely an accommodation to political and financial pressures. Yonkers was historically a beautiful, progressive city…we have already lost a great deal, but with no clear vision for what Yonkers could be, we risk losing the character and scale of a city sensitive to its environment and residents. Yonkers’ citizens need a voice in zoning decisions that impact the quality of their daily lives.

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