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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.