Money, Words Fly in Heated Public Relations Battle

Given the resistance Columbia has faced among vocal activists in West Harlem, some might have seen City Council’s approval of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville as a feat of spin doctor magic.

But a glance at Columbia’s lobbyist disclosures, public information as required by law, reveals that the University has paid its dues. In 2007 alone, Columbia paid a total of $332,850 to political consulting firm Bill Lynch Associates, which in turn hired the New York-based Hollywood public relations firm Sunshine, Sachs & Associates to gain support of West Harlem residents.

Sunshine, Sachs & Associates organized the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, a group that has backed Columbia’s expansion plans, though Coalition members and University administrators flatly deny any financial links between CFM and Columbia—a frequent accusation of several anti-expansion activists.

Jay Strell, a spokesperson for Sunshine, Sachs & Associates who provides communications support for CFM, emphasized the need to recruit actively organized locals in favor of the expansion. “There are many voices in the community who believe that Columbia’s plan for Manhattanville is the best way forward,” he said. “Those voices were simply not being heard [before the birth of the Coalition].”

“I think many are disappointed that it [money] was sent there [to lobbyists] instead of to other areas that would demonstrate activities to bridge a community together,”

Community Board 9 member Vicky Gholson said. “When you are in a community like ours, in which the majority of the residents are working poor or poor, and when those sums of money are thrown about to mold public opinion, they will always be perceived on the negative side.”

But anti-expansion activists have paid for their efforts as well. Nick Sprayregen, the second-largest owner of private property in the expansion area and a vocal critic of the University, employs lobbyist Richard Lipsky and a team of lawyers–including Norman Siegel, former New York Civil Liberties Union director–in his fight against Columbia.

Sprayregen paid Lipsky $48,000 in 2007 and $13,053 to the Law Offices of Howard Goldman in 2006, according to lobbyist disclosures.

Kevin Wardally, senior vice president at Bill Lynch Associates, declined to comment on the approximately $333,000 Columbia paid the firm. Columbia has spent additional millions over the past four years on law and urban planning firms, according to public lobbyist disclosures, though University public affairs officials said not all of the recipients are engaged in traditional “lobbying.”

Meanwhile, Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville members have maintained their pro-expansion stances, viewing themselves as locals whose opinions matter as much as any other Harlem activists. Dennis Palmer, executive director of the Alexander Doll Company on 131st Street, relocated his business to accommodate Columbia’s zoning in Manhattanville, and then joined CFM.

“Columbia has been a very able, very positive partner,” Palmer said. “It’s very selfish for us not to be supportive of this effort. ... It’s an overwhelming social and societal issue, not just about moving our building across the street.”

But Columbia has also faced criticism stemming from the appearance of a group from East Harlem’s Addicts Rehabilitation Center at a CB9 meeting in August 2007.

Participants in the drug rehab program handed out flyers supporting the expansion, but many did not know what they were supporting.

When asked about the incident, Rev. Reginald Williams, who led the group and runs the Rehabilitation Center, said the group members “were residents of the community,” despite their association with an institution across town in East Harlem. “This is not North or South Korea. This is the Harlem community,” he said.

DeMott told a different version of the story. According to him, those opposed to expansion at the meeting “made friends” with the group from the center and explained to them the purpose of the assembly and the “reason they were brought there.”

“Their enthusiasm for being used was ‘to hell with that,’” DeMott said.

Local politicians stress that the University’s lobbying was not aimed at them in particular. “They’ve [Columbia] told all 51 members [of the Council] about their opinions ... and there is a lot of innuendo and crossfire that the Councilmember is not going to deal with,” said Lynnette Velasco, special assistant to City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, mentioning that Dickens “has known Mr. Lynch for many years.”

Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin drew on administrators’ direct involvement with community members. “The truth of the matter is this plan went through because Columbia was able to persuade the people of northern Manhattan and the elected leaders that we could do something that was good both for Columbia, the communities, and New York City,” he said. “And no lobbyist or spin people could do that, it’s just the merits of the idea.”

scott.levi@columbiaspectator.com.

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