June 2, 2020 By Christian Murray
Denise Keehan-Smith was unceremoniously dumped as Community Board 2 chair late Sunday.
Keehan-Smith was in Pennsylvania when she received a phone call at 10:16 p.m. from Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee.
Lee called her to tell her she was out—that she would no longer be on the community board. She was told in a 24-minute call that a recent discrimination complaint filed by the board’s district manager against her was an embarrassment. Keehan-Smith was also told by Lee that people said she was toxic.
“I said who are these people? Jimmy Van Bramer?” Keehan-Smith said, adding that most board members support her. “I told her to go talk to board members.”
Keehan-Smith said she told Lee that the complaint filed against her by district manager Debra Markell Kleinert of “abuse” was false. “I said I can refute the complaint. It is not true.”
Keehan-Smith said that her departure was essentially a “hit job by Jimmy Van Bramer” and his political allies.
Van Bramer did not respond for comment, despite several texts and e-mails to his chief of staff Matt Wallace.
Community board members are appointed by the borough president and the council member of a given district.
In this case it is Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who has been at odds with Keehan-Smith in recent years– particularly over the protected bicycle lanes in Sunnyside.
Keehan-Smith has been critical of the design, while Van Bramer has been a staunch advocate.
Keehan-Smith was also skeptical of Van Bramer’s aborted run for Queens Borough President. She said that his narrative of being anti the Queens Democratic machine was false and his anti-real estate rhetoric was hollow.
Lee, who assumed the job when Melinda Katz stepped down to become District Attorney, does not have a history with Keehan-Smith and the board. Lee did not respond for comment.
Keehan-Smith, who was the first female to be CB2 board chair, was voted into the position in 2016. She was re-elected every year since. The chair job is unpaid.
The news of her abrupt departure shocked her fellow board members—particularly the manner in which she was ousted.
“I think this was a carefully orchestrated hatchet job,” said Community Board 2 member Patrick O’Brien, who was a previous board chair. “I think those involved include elected officials, members of press and sadly some within the community board itself.”
He said that while there may have been tension in the board’s district office, it didn’t reach the level that would warrant Keehan-Smith’s removal in such a nontransparent fashion.
Keehan-Smith’s demise—at least on the surface—stems from a complaint filed by Markell Kleinert, the long-time district manager.
The complaint, according to an article published in the Queens Eagle, accused Keehan-Smith of being “abrasive” and “abusive.”
Markell Kleinert, also states that said she was specifically targeted by Keehan-Smith due to her age, disability and religion especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keehan-Smith said she first learned of the complaint—which was signed March 19– while reading the Queens Eagle article published on May 26.
She reached out to Queens Borough Hall to get a copy of the complaint and find out more about it. She was told that she was not permitted to have it.
She then reached out to general counsel at borough hall who told her she needed to work with officers from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was handling the complaint. She was then informed the complaint was confidential.
“All materials and documents submitted are confidential and discussed internally by EEO officers as is required by EEO Policy,” reads an e-mail Keehan-Smith received from borough hall.
Keehan-Smith said it was odd that such a confidential document would be leaked to a reporter—yet officials did not permit her to see it.
Keehan-Smith reiterated that Markell Kleinert’s accusations were untrue. She said that she had been complaining to borough hall about Markell Kleinert’s job performance since 2018.
“Yes, I had been complaining about her performance a long time. But I didn’t know about her disabilities. I only knew she had a bad knee. I only learned about her disabilities when I read the article.”
Markell Kleinert could not be reached for comment.
Keehan-Smith and Markell Kleinert also were at odds with one another over the purchase of a laptop and whether the board staff could work from home during the pandemic, according to the Eagle.
Markell Kleinert informed executive board members that office staff planned to visit the office on a rotating schedule.
Keehan-Smith took issue with Markell Kleinert for not consulting with her before making the decision. The district manager, while being paid, reports to the chair.
Then, as first reported by the Eagle, there was a dispute between the pair over the payment for the holiday lights in Sunnyside that went up on Skillman and 43rd Avenues in November 2019.
Keehan-Smith said the board’s budget committee agreed to fund the lights.
Markell Kleinert, however, refused to pay for them citing strict usage limits for the council funds, a policy that had just gone into effect.
Keehan-Smith said there was confusion surrounding payment due to the new council guidelines. She said that they had only become aware of the guidelines after the lights went up and payment was about to be made.
The board agreed to help cover the cost of the holiday lights along Skillman Avenue since Van Bramer’s office—which had previously paid for them–was no longer involved.
Business owners along Skillman Avenue didn’t want Van Bramer to be involved with the holiday lights, upset that he had promised to back them in their battle against protected bicycle lanes on Skillman Avenue—only to change his mind.
But Keehan-Smith said that her departure mainly comes back to her relationship with Van Bramer.
The tension stems from two areas. Keehan-Smith has a long history with former congressman Joseph Crowley and she was opposed to the street redesign of Skillman Avenue.
Van Bramer, in his quest to be borough president, ran on a platform of being anti the Queens Democratic Machine and the former party boss Joseph Crowley, who was defeated in 2018 by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He referred to the machine as “corrupt.”
Keehan-Smith objected to Van Bramer’s narrative. She said that Van Bramer was always trying to carry favor with the party– particularly when he was seeking the position of council speaker that was ultimately taken by Corey Johnson.
“He would go to all the Democratic party events,” Keehan-Smith.
Van Bramer, she said, endorsed Joseph Crowley in the primary against Ocasio-Cortez, even gathering signatures for him and passing out leaflets. He then turned against the party the moment AOC won.
Additionally, as the Queens Post reported in January, Van Bramer’s 2017 campaign contributed $2,400 to the machine, while also contributing to the campaigns of many party-backed candidates —such as $2,750 to The Committee to Elect Elizabeth Crowley; $2,750 to the We Support Paul Vallone; $2,750 to Peter Koo 2017; and $2,750 to Grodenchik 2017.
In the same year, Van Bramer’s fund also contributed $250 to the Joseph Crowley Leadership Fund.
Keehan-Smith has also questioned his anti big-real estate rhetoric.
For instance, Van Bramer, as previously reported by the Queens Post in January, received hefty contributions from the owners and employees of big developers over the years– including Rockrose, which gave him $4,500; Werwaiss & Co. $4,500; Brodsky Organization $3,000; Related Companies $5,750; Plaxall $2,625; Millennium Partners $5,750, Lions Group $4,000; T.F. Cornerstone $500 — among others.
But the big issue was the bicycle lanes.
Keehan-Smith, who was also the head of CB2’s Transportation Committee, didn’t approve of the protected bicycle lanes on Skillman Avenue.
She was an outspoken critic of the design—and the community board voted against them.
The bicycle lanes remain a source of tension for those who are for them or against them to this day.
Keehan-Smith kept hammering the Skillman Avenue bike lane issue even after they were constructed.
She complained of congestion between 54th Street and 49th Street—where the avenue has been narrowed from two lanes to one—and is concerned about firetrucks being able to get through in case of an emergency.
Van Bramer and the DOT insist the design is safe and has saved lives.
O’Brien said the whole incident of Keehan-Smith’s ousting was troubling.
“She has been selfless, committed and done a very good job as the chair. Every other community board member I would say watch your back.”