Green vs. Green

A Bitter Struggle in New York City Splits the Sierra Club

The New York leaders also believe they played a key role in denying a congressional endorsement for Sherwood Boehlert, an upstate Republican incumbent. (Many upstaters also opposed Boehlert, who was weak on wetlands.) That irked the Sierra Club's president, Chuck McGrady, a Republican who has been lobbying the chapters to widen their audience by endorsing more Republicans.

In October, McGrady had dinner with New Yorkers Brandstein and Cappadocia, among others. He urged them to back Boehlert. They eventually declined. "McGrady vowed to get even with us," claims Brandstein. "He wrote quite a nasty little e-mail to our group chair at that time. It was quite clear we were going to face some reprisals."

THE NEW YORKERS ARE CONVINCED THE CHAPTER was exacting its own revenge by squeezing the group in various bureaucratic ways. Jezer, says Blechman, "set about effectively making war on the New York City Group. We were strangled, starved for funding progressively." For years, the group and the chapter had joint office space. In 1998, Jezer abandoned the group share for a far more friendly cubicle in the national's brand-new New York office. The move helped cripple the New York group financially. In addition to rent, it was forced to cover the costs of telephones, xeroxing, and administrative chores once handled by the chapter's staff. That year the executive committee fought back: it sent out a letter pleading for funds in March, the same month the club designates for chapter solicitations. Technically legal or not, there was little doubt the chapter would be outraged. The following year, though they'd promised the chapter they wouldn't, the New York group did it again.

illustration by Jeff Crosby

"That was the straw," says Jezer.

On March 27, 1999, the chapter voted to dissolve the New York City Group. In an e-mail two weeks earlier, the chapter's vice chair, Stuart Auchincloss, had explained the group was "a cancer on the Sierra Club. Living organisms have mechanisms to control or eliminate rogue elements that do not serve the whole."

The New Yorkers were stunned. "There was so much emotion," says Cappadocia. The group appealed, and the national appointed two fact finders who dug up no documentary proof that the city group had violated club bylaws or that the chapter had the right to dissolve the group. Nonetheless, the national board of directors upheld the decision. Pope had had enough of the rebellion in New York.

"All of this controversy has been quite damaging to our effectiveness in New York City," Pope says.

It fell to the national to manage the new elections. For three or four months, Pope says, the crisis in New York took a third of his time—and a considerable chunk of Sierra Club money. Some of the club's efforts made matters worse. First, it hired a law firm, Perkins Coie, to investigate what the New York City Group had done with the money it had raised. In their newsletter CounterPunch, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have declared that the firm's client list is "larded with some of the most vicious and noxious corporations in America," including chemical companies Monsanto and W.R. Grace. "This is what it has come to with this once admirable organization," they wrote. "It is hiring a firm of legal goons for corporate thugs to attack its own grassroots environmentalists."

The club also hired an "intervenor"—Catherine Tinker, an administrative law judge—to oversee new elections. She vetted candidates, banning those former group officers who'd refused to respond to Perkins Coie's questions about the management of the group. Local members of the Sierra Club, the vast majority of whom have no involvement with the club, were besieged with mailings. There was one from Franz Leichter, another from the leader of the Fresh Start slate, John Klotz. The former group members say they were the victims of a smear campaign.

"It was the Atlantic Chapter that came around asking me to run," said winning candidate Cathy Drew, director of the River Project, a Manhattan monitoring station for the Hudson's marine biology, a week before the election concluded. "Rhea Jezer and [national staff member] Susan Holmes, they all came around. I told them no several times just 'cause I was afraid of all this mess." What she's heard, she said, is that "basically these people have been thrown out for misbehavior and I think there's even, I'm not sure, a criminal thing against them for financial impropriety."

The Fresh Start slate won by a landslide—1200 votes were cast, 10 times more than usual. But they have to delay doing business until Judge Wilk resolves the questions surrounding a motion to overturn the election.

DAVID ORR IS DOUBTFUL THE LAWSUITS WILL succeed, since there is "just no case law on this." But the group's defiant actions may still roil the Sierra Club. The John Muir Sierrans don't intend to let the matter drop. Orr, for one, says he will persist in trying to have the New York group declared its own chapter. Only California has more than one chapter—a structure Pope says is unwieldy, because yet another bureaucratic layer has had to be created to resolve the chapter's political endorsement disputes. And the last thing he wants is for the New Yorkers to have ongoing license to address the city's major donors by mail.

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