A group of New Yorkers ousted from office by the Sierra Club have won a partial legal victory, but their hopes for regaining control of the local arm of one of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups remain dim.
The bitter wrangle began last March, after the Atlantic Chapter (the state-level Sierra Club body) voted to shut down the club’s New York City group, which represents 12,000 Sierrans. Chapter leaders were outraged because the group’s officers had defied club practice by twice sending their own fundraising letters directly to city members. Group leaders claimed they had no choice, saying the chapter had deliberately starved them for operating funds. (See “Green Vs. Green,” December 21, 1999.)
Both sides view the fundraising issue as the last straw in a long-running feud. Unlike the Atlantic Chapter’s leaders and their allies, the national executives based in San Francisco, the New York group typically showed little interest in being political insiders. They didn’t necessarily agree with state and national leadership when it came to backing candidates, and they resisted compromise, most notably when they refused to endorse plans for a park and development along the Hudson River waterfront. Such obstinacy was something of an embarrassment to chapter and national leaders. The waterfront project has long been supported by George Pataki, whose favor the Atlantic Chapter’s then chair, Rhea Jezer, had assiduously courted.
The legal decision came in a suit filed by Jim Lane, an attorney and activist with the city group. Lane claimed that the Atlantic Chapter had failed to provide adequate notice of the meetings at which it acted to dissolve the New York City Group and its 18-member executive committee.
In a decision first issued on January 12, State Supreme Court justice Nicholas Figueroa supported the chapter’s “exercise of business judgment” in opting to disband the group. But he agreed with Lane that “proper procedure was not followed.”
On March 11, 1999, the Atlantic Chapter’s vice-chair, Stuart Auchincloss, had sent an e-mail, addressed to only some of the group officers, announcing a March 20 meeting at an unspecified location “near La Guardia Airport.” There, the chapter’s executive committee would “review the history” of the group’s actions. What it actually did was vote on resolutions to suspend the group, resolutions that a week later were adopted by the Atlantic Chapter’s board. Nobody from the New York City Group attended the March 20 meeting. Only three group officers were present for the March 27 vote, of which Judge Figueroa ruled there was also insufficient notice. The group’s leaders learned of their suspension by mail.
Figueroa initially ordered the Sierra Club to restore the status quo before March 27, 1999—when the Atlantic Chapter had not yet formally voted to oust the leaders, let alone staged an election to replace them with a smaller, more congenial executive committee.
The Sierra Club’s attorney, Dennis Orr of Mayer, Brown & Platt, begged the judge to reconsider, arguing that the new election had been conducted “at great cost.” (By one estimate, the whole brouhaha—partly brought about by the chapter’s high-handed tactics—has already cost the club over $300,000.) In his revised ruling, Figueroa ordered the Atlantic Chapter simply to conduct a new hearing, with notice to all 12,000 group members either by mail or through a notice in The New York Times. At that meeting, which must take place no later than March 24, each ousted executive committee member will be permitted to speak for up to 20 minutes. Afterward, the chapter’s officers will decide who should lead the group in New York City—the rebellious exiles or their own handpicked slate.
“I can easily see them holding a meeting where everybody sits there drumming their fingers and waiting for the people from New York City to shut up, then they go ahead and do what they want anyway,” says Lane. (Stuart Auchincloss, now the chapter’s chair, did not return calls.)
Lane sees parallels between the group’s struggle with the Sierra Club and the legal battles eco-activists wage when developers shortcut procedures by shortchanging environmental impact statements (EIS). When the advocates win in court, “sometimes [developers] do the EIS and the things revealed generate public pressure,” Lane says. But “most of the time, they do the EIS and, surprise, surprise, they make the same decision they did before.”
“More often the [legal] delay involved kills the project for other reasons. That’s how the environmentalists win.” Lane is prepared to go ahead with several other procedural challenges.
“Litigation is not a good way to settle disputes. It’s a waste of my time and the Sierra Club’s money,” Lane says. “If they had left us any alternative, I would not have brought a suit.”
Another legal action, brought by ousted treasurer Howard Brandstein, among others, demands that the Sierra Club restore the city group’s executive committee and pay $20 million in damages for defamation to some of its members. That case is pending before Judge Elliot Wilk in New York State Supreme Court.