Manhattan Beach Group Slams Councilman Nelson, Opens Third Front In Divisive Neighborhood Battles

Leaders of the Manhattan Beach Community Group (MBCG) launched a three-pronged political offensive last night, two against familiar enemies – the Manhattan Beach Neighborhood Association (MBNA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) – and a third against the neighborhood’s only representative to the City Council – Councilman Michael C. Nelson.

While topics during the group’s monthly meetings bounced back and forth between security, traffic safety and beachside barbecuing, the tone remained consistently hostile. They lashed out against the MBNA for their attempt to ban charcoal grilling in Manhattan Beach and they threatened a civil uprising against the DOT. But some of the choicest words were reserved for Councilman Nelson, who MBCG President Ira Zalcman said has broken promises, ignored the community and plays the politics of division in the neighborhood’s leadership struggles.

The publicity the neighborhood has received lately – whether it be from the feud between groups, the shenanigans of politicians, or some residents’ “exclusionary” proposals – has Zalcman feeling “humiliated” as a resident.

“I’m embarrassed when I go places and tell people I’m from Manhattan Beach,” he said. “I sometimes say I’m from Sheepshead Bay because I don’t want to get into it.”

Councilman Nelson Doesn’t Share Our Priorities

Among the many fires lit last night is a now-public spar with Councilman Nelson, who was not in attendance when Zalcman let loose a five-minute fusillade of criticism [video at top].

The segment began with Zalcman talking about reasons he’s embarrassed to tell people he lives in Manhattan Beach, beginning with State Senator Carl Kruger, who faces more than 100 years of jail time for corruption charges. He used the December 26 blizzard and the community’s critique of city response inefficiencies to segue into Nelson, who responded to criticism of his office during the storm by calling them “freaking lunatics” (Zalcman misquoted the councilman as saying “freaking idiots.”). But the blasting didn’t end there; Zalcman continued his offensive by dishing on what he perceives as the councilman’s “divisive” comments, apathy and selfishness.

“Just two weeks ago he was making unecessary, divisive comments about this group,” said Zalcman. “Mike Nelson takes no interest in any of the ideas or projects we as the MBCG have discussed. He has stood silent with his hands folded when we … suffered the horrible deaths of a 4-year-old boy on Oriental Boulevard, an 18-year-old on Oriental Boulevard, and a 52-year-old on Shore Boulevard. Not one word from him. Silence is what he spoke. Yet when it comes to him driving to his new office on Voorhies Avenue, he speaks loudly.”

Zalcman was referring to the councilman’s recent proposal to alter Voorhies Avenue into a one-way strip between Ocean Avenue and Sheepshead Bay Road, an issue he took up only after moving his offices one block away. Though the traffic may be bad at this location, Zalcman said no one has ever died from an accident there, unlike three problem spots in Manhattan Beach that the group has been pushing to see addressed. Aside from serving his own personal needs, according to Zalcman, Nelson has done little to fight for the traffic safety initiatives they’ve requested.

A list of “broken promises” also litters the relationship between the MBCG and Nelson, according to Zalcman. He pointed to a promise the councilman made four or five years ago to direct funding to relocating and improving the dog run – money that never materialized.

But worst of all, according to Zalcman, is Nelson’s silence on the latest issue in Manhattan Beach: the MBNA’s proposed ban on charcoal grilling that his group sees as exclusionary and racist.

“All in all, the thing that really and truly upsets me the most, and what I know in my bones, is that today [Nelson] should stand up and denounce racism, hatred and discrimination wherever and from whomever,” Zalcman said. “He should defend the rights of all families to use a public beach. He should be a councilman that represents everybody, and not just a few people.”

About Those Barbecues

The barbecue ban and the group that proposed it – the MBNA – was another target of the group’s ire. Both Zalcman and MBNA Traffic Commissioner Judy Baron spoke at length about the proposal, which they said was based on frivolous conclusions about health in order to exclude poor people and minorities from using the beach.

The group passed a motion to oppose the demand of the MBNA to eliminate the barbecue pits from Manhattan Beach Park until “such time as there is scientific proof that barbecue smoke is harmful to human health the designated barbecue pits … should remain for the use and enjoyment of the public.”

The criticism started with Zalcman giving a brief history on why he decided to run for president of the group in 2007.

He said he was “appalled and disgusted as a human being” when he attended a June meeting that year, where a motion was put forward to privatize Manhattan Beach, with one member going so far as to suggest an electrified fence. The group voted down the proposals and rejected derogatory references to people of color. Zalcman, a child of Holocaust survivors, said he ran so that future proposals like that would have a staunch opponent.

According to Zalcman, the latest push to ban barbecuing echoes the desire to privatize the beach, seeded with code words for hate and bigotry.

“Three years ago, some of your neighbors who have gone on to form another group spoke the code words of hate” such as crime, different types of people and litter, Zalcman said. “All that language, as far as I’m concerned, are code words of discrimination. That hope of theirs to privatize the beach … is very much still alive. It’s very much on the table. Don’t think for one second that it went away. It’s here, and I say this as fact.”

The MBNA made the case for banning charcoal barbecuing on the beach earlier this month, when they voted unanimously to send letters to city agencies demanding that barbecuing be banned and the charcoal pits uprooted from the park, a move that would eliminate one of the borough’s seven parks that legally allow grills. The vote was made after the group’s president, Dr. Alan Ditchek brought up a recent study linking airborne particulate matter with elevated incidents of stroke.

“This is a fantastic leap, even for them,” said Zalcman of the stroke study. “Instead of realizing that the reality is that families, parents and their children, visiting the beach to barbecue are not the ones that commit crimes … in fact, we should encourage more family activities to attract them.”

Judy Baron, the MBCG Traffic Committee chairperson – and also a commissioner on the Interstate Environmental Commission, a water and air pollution control agency – also lambasted the stroke claim. She said the article discusses short- and long-term exposure to air pollution in developing countries, and that it concluded that there was a possibility that under certain circumstances pollution could cause stroke, but urged more scientific research.

“Linking barbecue smoke to this report is not only inaccurate but it’s a quantum leap to an erroneous conclusion, because that’s not what the report was discussing,” Baron said. “There is no scientific data that states that barbecue smoke is detrimental to the environment” or to humans.

“The bottom line is that if you’re going to make a motion … to deprive people of their right to do something, there sure as hell better be a good reason for doing it, and it better be in this instance a good scientific reason,” she added.

But Wait, What About The DOT?

In their newfound venom for Councilman Mike Nelson as well as the revived issue of exclusionary politics in Manhattan Beach, the group didn’t forget to throw barbs – and an ultimatum – towards their oldest of foes: the Department of Transportation.

The group revealed that they had a sit-down meeting with Department of Transportation Brooklyn Commissioner Joseph Palmieri on March 29, which Traffic Committee chair Judy Baron described as “screwed up, royally.”

Baron said she took issue with Palmieri’s contention that zebra lines stop speeding, while traffic lights do not. She brought with her photos, documents and more that she said proved people are abusing the zebra stripes and racing down Oriental Boulevard.

Ultimately, the group appears to have won a few promises from Palmieri. But feeling scorned by the DOT’s bungled implementations of other recent initiatives, which Baron said included poorly placed or ambiguous signage and unenforced daylighting, the group remains leery about whether the agency will deliver effectively on their promises.

They’re also feeling slighted by the commissioner and his aides, who Baron said didn’t deliver the amount of respect they deserved.

“He listened a lot. The one thing I will tell you is that he never took a note. He never wrote anything down,” Baron said. “His community affairs person sat there and Ira and I saw her doodling, and [Community Board 15 Chairperson Theresa Scavo] saw her doodling, and the other gentleman who was there didn’t take notes either.”

To put pressure on the department, the group is issuing an ultimatum: if no action is taken in the next few weeks, they’ll be considering additional measures, including civil disobedience. This option was first considered in October 2010 following Evan Svirsky’s death, and was set aside until they attempted a petition. President Ira Zalcman said the petition is up to 1,400 signatures; when it reaches 2,000, they intend to take more extreme measures in their dealings with the DOT.