Staff complaints prompt calls for misconduct training for community board members

Gabriel Sandoval, THE CITY

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Community boards, powered by volunteers, are exempt from rules requiring anti-discrimination training. Some paid employees say that needs changing.

Bronx Community Board 11 District Manager Jeremy Warneke speaks at a public meeting in 2017.
Bronx Community Board 11 District Manager Jeremy Warneke speaks at a public meeting in 2017. | Screengrab/THIRTEEN/YouTube

Paid staffers at some of the city’s 59 community boards say the time has come for the volunteers who hire and supervise them to undergo anti-discrimination training.

For Jeremy Warneke, the district manager of Community Board 11 in The Bronx, that realization came early last year, as the board’s executive committee weighed his request for a pay raise.

The board’s first vice chair — who had recently ended his second term as chair — was having none of it. Anthony Vitaliano, who had joined the board in 2008 by appointment of the Bronx borough president, declared that Warneke’s family life was interfering with his work performance.

“He has a serious problem at home,” said Vitaliano, as disclosed in an official account of what transpired. “Apparently, he is responsible for the kids.”

Then, Vitaliano and another board member referred to Warneke as a “mom.”

The interaction became the subject of two Equal Employment Opportunity complaints from Warneke. The district manager sent his first to the Bronx Borough President’s Office in March 2019, and a second to the state’s Division of Human Rights nine months later.

As complaints like the one against Vitaliano have surfaced, so has a push to mandate anti-discrimination training for the volunteers of the city’s community boards — especially their chairpersons, who are essentially the bosses of the district managers who run day-to-day operations.

An Alleged Pattern

Both complaints filed by Warneke — lodged against CB11 as a whole — alleged sexual stereotyping by Vitaliano dating back to 2016, according to documents obtained by THE CITY.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr.’s office found Warneke’s complaint to be “unsubstantiated,” but nonetheless ordered Vitaliano to “complete the EEO Awareness training provided by the City of New York,” a June 2019 decision letter shows.

Then after nearly a year, on June 17, 2020, the state Division of Human Rights found “probable cause” that discrimination occurred, according to the agency’s “determination after investigation” letter.

About a week later, an official from Díaz’s office thanked Vitaliano for his service on the board and, without offering a reason, told him that he would not be reappointed.

Screengrab/THIRTEEN/YouTube
Former Bronx Community Board 11 vice chairman Anthony Vitaliano speaks at a public meeting in 2017.

On a recorded January 2019 private phone call submitted as evidence in the investigation, Vitaliano reportedly told Warneke: “This job revolves around your personal life. That’s the issue right here.”

“I kinda think you better sit back, have a nice conversation with your … wife, your girlfriend, and start establishing your priorities, number one, when it comes to the office,” he added.

Vitaliano, who was Warneke’s supervisor for five years when he was the board chair of CB11, told THE CITY he didn’t think he did anything wrong.

“He didn’t deserve a raise,” Vitaliano said of Warneke. “That was my opinion.”

In May 2019, Warneke received a 6% merit-based salary bump, raising his annual pay to nearly $90,000.

“I hope I get my day in court,” Vitaliano added. The Human Rights Division has not yet scheduled a hearing.

“The only thing I’m guilty of is the way I talk to people,” Vitaliano, 80, told THE CITY, saying his “rough” communication style is likely due to his 38-year career at the NYPD.

Recommended, Not Required

Other instances of misconduct have been reported at boards across the city.

In June, a Queens community board’s chairperson wasn’t reappointed two months after its district manager filed a discrimination complaint against her, the Queens Daily Eagle reported.

Last November, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office ordered a board chair to undergo sensitivity training after an EEO probe found he discriminated against other members on the basis of gender. But Brewer’s office left the board to decide how to deal with the chair, who subsequently dropped his reelection bid, THE CITY reported.

A spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services — which handles training for city employees — initially told THE CITY that all community board members are mandated to receive EEO training. But after receiving further questions, he changed his statement to say that such training is recommended but not required.

“While community board members are volunteers and are not required to receive this training, it is considered to be a best practice,” said the spokesperson, Nick Benson.

Benson noted that community boards “fall under the jurisdiction of each respective borough president,” who are responsible for appointing members and providing training.

Warneke — who declined to comment on his complaint — said that only two of the 50 board members on the roster as of the start of summer have taken the EEO training.

They were Vitaliano and the other board member Warneke alleged called him a “mom.” Vitaliano finished his “EEO Awareness” online course on June 25, 2019, his certificate of completion shows.

A spokesperson for Díaz said that his office holds an annual orientation training for new members and hosts training sessions for existing members that bring in experts from city agencies, including the Conflicts of Interest Board and the Department of City Planning.

The spokesperson, Edwin Molina, said the Bronx Borough President’s Office “has gone to great lengths to ensure that community boards are cognizant of their EEO obligations.”

“Starting with the community board application, prospective member applicants must attest that they will complete any mandated city trainings as well as remain in compliance with EEO,” Molina said. “Each community board member is provided with a physical copy of the City’s EEO Policy upon appointment and advised to read it.”

New members are reminded of their “EEO obligations” and borough president’s role in filing complaints and investigating them, and other options for submitting complaints, he said.

Molina declined to specify what the “EEO obligations” are.

Different Boroughs, Different Approaches

Citywide, borough presidents’ approaches range widely.

Aries Dela Cruz, a spokesperson for Brewer, said that EEO training is offered but not mandatory for community board members.

The Queens Borough President’s Office provides anti-sexual harassment training for board chairs and employees and provides a written EEO policy to all board members annually, requiring a signature of receipt, said spokesperson Michael Scholl.

Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, said the office plays no role in EEO training, and directed questions to the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit. The Staten Island Borough President’s Office was not able to provide any details on community board anti-discrimination training.

 Community board volunteers are exempt from a 2018 city law that requires all New York City employers with 15 or more employees to provide annual anti-sexual harassment training to all staff, including interns.

But that same year, voters passed changes to the City Charter that explicitly addressed the boards’ vast needs for training on everything from zoning rules to meeting procedures.

The charter directs the new Civic Engagement Commission — which is also working to improve access to voting and civic data — to train community boards on land use, language access and technology. (The board is holding a meeting Wednesday related to expanding translation services at election poll sites.)

The charter makes clear that the commission’s training mandate is not limited to those topics — which means it could play a role in ensuring board members get anti-discrimination training.

The commission also must coordinate and consult with borough presidents on assistance and training “to the extent practicable.”

Unscheduled ‘Engagement’

Díaz has yet to team up with the commission, which first convened in May 2019, said spokesperson Molina: “To date, the Civic Engagement Commission has yet to provide any formal trainings to community boards in coordination with our office.”

The Civic Engagement Commission has “prioritized topics explicitly referenced in the charter,” said commission spokesperson Daniel Abramson.

The Bronx borough president requires all community board members to take sexual harassment training now. But they weren’t required to in 2018, when Ischia Bravo, Community Board 7’s district manager, reported a board member sexually harassed her.

“He was making comments throughout the meeting and then as the night ended and our meeting concluded, he approached me, touched me — and I was in shock,” she said.

She filed a complaint with Díaz’s office. The man was quickly removed from the board following an investigation, but the incident should have never happened, she said.

“I just felt like in order to avoid this issue, board members should be trained properly right from the beginning,” Bravo said.

“Trainings are important for a successful community board — whether that’s etiquette on behavior, transparency and conflict of interest, or just overall training to understand the city bureaucracy,” she added. “I feel like more of it needs to be done.”

Angel Mescain, district manager for Community Board 11 in Manhattan, agreed.

“Like any employer, board members as a collective, who are the employers of community boards, should be familiar with what the requirements are to comply with EEO,” he said.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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