Board Of Trustees Meeting Turns Sour With Insults

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Robin Bernstein and Deputy Mayor Barton Sobel verbally spar at the Aug. 6 meeting.

The Village of Great Neck’s Aug. 6 Board of Trustees meeting was marked by procedural violations, heated exchanges between audience members, board members interrupting residents and a plea for civility from Mayor Pedram Bral.

The three-and-a-half-hour long meeting, which started late due to Wi-Fi issues, dealt with several proposed building projects in the village: a pair of mixed-use structures on Middle Neck Road and three separate synagogues proposing changes to their facades. 

At the onset of the meeting, architect Raymond Chan presented updated site plans and renderings for a mixed-use building, which would combine a retail space with second and third-floor apartments, at 523-531 Middle Neck Rd. A previous model for the building drew flak from villagers, so the plan was updated to reduce retail space. 

Currently, HSBC and the building that formerly housed Middle Neck Pharmacy stand at the site, which drew criticism from both audience members and the mayor for its aesthetic unpleasantness. 

“We all agree the existing buildings are just horrible,” Bral said. “It’s over 30 years that those buildings have been handed from one owner to another owner, and no one has done anything.”

Later on, a discussion started about removing a dilapidated section of sidewalk on Piccadilly Road behind 1 Wooleys Lane after a resident’s request for the removal was read into the record.

Attorney and village resident Robin Bernstein came to the microphone to raise concerns about the impact the sidewalk’s removal might have on the safety of residents and children in the area. She was repeatedly cut off by both Bral and Deputy Mayor Barton Sobel, the latter of whom contended that she did not live close to the sidewalk in question. Bernstein disputed the assertion, and demanded to speak.

“Respect, r-e-s-p-e-c-t, it’s not a curse word everybody,” Bernstein said. 

The crowd of more than 100 people gathered at the meeting let out a long, collective “ooh” after Bernstein’s comment. The audience made the same noise when she returned to the stand to speak on a different topic and repeated the noise at other junctures throughout the night. 

Ultimately, the board decided to reach out to the county about getting the sidewalk repaired and extended.

Afterwards, Great Neck resident Albert Halimi made reference to safety concerns he brought up in an earlier meeting about the construction site for the Congregation Kol Yisrael Achim synagogue at 429 Middle Neck Rd. and claimed the congregation’s members, spurred on by Rabbi Yosef Alon, inundated him with threats over the past two weeks in response to those concerns.

“For the last two weeks, I have had a tremendous amount of threats from people sitting here, and many other people,” Halimi said. “There is a tremendous amount of endangerment on this property. I try to come in and correct it. I didn’t try to stop it.”

As Halimi spoke, crowd members yelled insults and condemnations, including calls for him to move out of the community. Bral attempted to calm the audience and inspire cooperation.

“We are a village, it’s a small village, only 10,000 people,” Bral said. “We’re all really here to live side-by-side. To ask anybody to leave is unbelievably unacceptable.”

Alon denied Halimi’s allegations and attempted to offer a direct apology at the meeting, which Halimi did not accept. Halimi claimed members of Alon’s congregation smashed in the windshield of his car. After the meeting, a representative from the congregation met Halimi in the parking lot and apologized for the incident, which he said Alon was not involved with, and said the rabbi would be willing to pay for repairs.

Bernstein told the Great Neck Record she felt the audience’s tone throughout the meeting was “juvenile.”

“It was almost like being back in grade school,” she said. 

Bral echoed Bernstein’s sentiment, saying afterward to the Great Neck Record that the meeting was “one of the nastiest, most vicious board meetings ever.”

The board took the time to huddle in a side room for an executive session during the deliberation of two separate line items. According to the New York Open Meetings Law, for public bodies like the village board to hold an executive session  “a motion must be made during an open meeting to enter into executive session, the motion must identify the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered” and “the motion must be carried by a majority vote of the total membership of a public body.” Both times the board left the room for executive sessions, they neither provided an acceptable reason (there are only a handful the law permits, most of which pertain to matters of safety or the disclosure of financial secrets) nor took a vote before leaving.

In between bouts of conflict, the board voted to send the site plans for four of the five proposed building projects to the county for review. The one plan they didn’t send forward, the mixed-use 8,300-square-foot building on 733 Middle Neck Rd., was denied because of inaccuracies in the renderings, which the board said should be fixed before the next phase of the process. 

In response to opposition residents raised at each proposal, Bral reminded the audience none of these projects are near receiving final approval, and said the audience’s concerns would be addressed more substantially down the road. 

The next meeting of the board of trustees is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20.

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