Council members held the first of a series of hearings on Wednesday evening to resolve the dysfunction at the city’s board of adjustment which has crippled that body as a result of alleged prejudice, racism, and hostilities between members over the past half-year.
First to testify before the Committee of the Whole was commissioner Aheya Khan. Some council members sought an explanation from Khan for his eight consecutive absences on the board since October 2015.
Council members William McKoy, Ruby Cotton, Michael Jackson, and Maritza Davila inquired about Khan’s consecutive absences were.
“What would be your explanation for those absences?” asked McKoy. He said Khan’s absences deprived applicants from receiving a fair hearing and prevented the city from economically moving forward.
A city ordinance says a member who misses three consecutive meetings may be subject to removal from the board.
Khan said the acrimony and rancor which often involved innuendos, allegations, and prejudice at the Muslim board members discouraged him from attending the meetings. He began boycotting the meetings in October, he said. He said Montaha Deeb and Alaur Khondokar also joined the boycott.
“So they really can’t be classified as absences because it was a moral boycott,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large.
“That’s the basic definition of civil disobedience,” said Morris.
“I could be removed for my absences,” said Khan acknowledging his consecutive absences may have been contrary to the ordinance. “I believe a greater wrong has been done on the board.”
Khan said much of the alleged prejudice has been festering for a while. He cited an example of a slaughter house application that was submitted by someone who wished to open a Halal slaughterhouse.
The discussion moved from the merit of the application to it being about certain Muslim religious practice. Khan said commissioner Geraldine Rayfield accused him of testifying for the applicant.
Khan said Rayfield also pointed to unsubstantiated conflicts of interest based on an applicant’s Islamic name.
Khan said the alleged prejudice peaked after last July’s re-organization meeting.
Khan nominated Deeb to be the chairwoman of the board. Rayfield cast aspersions on Deeb’s qualifications to serve as the board’s president telling Khan to withdraw his motion.
Rayfield alleged Deeb is not a city resident. Deeb denied the allegations.
“I saw all the back and forth,” said Alex Mendez, who attended the re-organization meeting. He questioned whether the deep personal animosities between the members can be reconciled.
Khan said in the September 28th, 2015 meeting certain board members introduced a resolution to remove Montaha Deeb for missing more than three meetings.
Deeb may have had a medical excuse for not attending those meetings, according to indications from Khan and the board’s attorney Marco Laracca.
Deeb was also targeted for having a pending lawsuit against the city, said Khan.
Khan said he opposed the resolution to remove Deeb. He told his colleagues to take up the matter with the city council. He sent a letter in October to the city’s corporation counsel, economic development director, and council president seeking intervention from the governing body, he said.
Khan said Deeb has been subjected to poor treatment from the board’s secretary Margarita “Maggie” Rodriguez. He pointed to an incident in which Deeb attempted to move her seat away from Rayfield.
Rodriguez allegedly did not accept it. She ended up complaining she could not bear to sit next to Deeb, said Khan.
Rodriguez’s attorney William Rush objected to Khan’s description of his client.
“We’re here based on some kindergarten nonsense,” remarked Morris.
Khan said there’s likely ill-feelings between Deeb and Rodriguez. Both work as secretaries at the city government.
Laracca said there’s no seating arrangement at the board of adjustment. He noted it’s customary for the planner and the attorney to seat at specified places, but the commissioners are able to seat wherever they please.
“The board chair has a responsibility to maintain decorum which he has failed to do,” said Morris.
“That’s his opinion,” rebutted Gerald Thaxton after the hearing.
The council scheduled hearings for Deeb, Khan, Khondokar, and Rayfield, and Thaxton.
Khondokar was a no show at the hearing irking councilwoman Maritza Davila. Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman said Khondokar’s mother recently passed away.
“There’s no excuse,” said Davila.
“We wouldn’t have heard him today anyway,” said Jackson, who struck a softer tone.
The council will schedule other meetings to hear from the rest of the commissioners involved, said officials.
Those hearings are expected to be public except for that of Deeb.
After agreeing to have her hearing be held in public, Deeb changed her mind on Wednesday night.