According to a report recently released by the New York State Commission on Lobbying, Columbia maintained the second largest lobbying contract in New York in 2004, with a law firm retained to work on its plans to rezone Manhattanville.
The $682,743 contract between Columbia and the firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel was second in size only to a contract between Madison Square Garden and a firm that it hired to lobby against the West Side Stadium for the New York Jets.
The commission's report identified the City Council, the Manhattan Borough President's Office, the New York City Planning Commission, and Community Board 9 as the local entities lobbied by the firm. These groups each play a role in approving the rezoning of Manhattanville, which must occur before Columbia can expand into the area. The area is currently zoned for light manufacturing, which Columbia is seeking to change to a mixed-use designation.
However, University officials said that most of what Kramer Levin was paid to do was not traditional lobbying but, rather, research and legal work. They said that while Kramer Levin had sometimes attended meetings between Columbia and various agencies, the firm had never contacted elected officials in order to influence them.
"We're land-use lawyers," said Gary Tarnoff of Kramer Levin. "We're providing representation in connection with their rezoning application," he continued. He described the groups identified as lobbying targets in the commission's report as "agencies that may be spoken to."
University officials said that it was wrong to view the lobbying contract as an extensive effort to influence decision makers in favor of their rezoning plan. They said that the New York State lobbying law, which defines local lobbying as "any attempt to influence the passage or defeat of any local law, ordinance, or regulation, ... or the adoption or rejection of any rule or regulation having the force and effect of a local law, ordinance, or regulation," is very broad and can be construed as encompassing not just attempts to influence officials but any legal work done in connection with land use changes.
Given the law's broad scope, officials said that Columbia has decided to err on the side of caution and report more rather than less to the lobbying commission. They said that while contacts with various agencies had occurred, Kramer Levin has been retained mainly to do legal work, including drafting language for Columbia's rezoning application and working on the Environmental Impact Statement that will have to accompany any rezoning. They said they hired the firm to provide counsel in areas where the University does not have in-house expertise.
"We've been talking to the city," Tarnoff said. "I don't think there's any secret about that."
He identified City Planning as the agency with which the firm had had the most extensive contact. City Planning is the first step toward getting a rezoning plan approved, as it must certify that any such plan is complete and valid.
While not commenting on the specific nature of City Planning's contact with Kramer Levin, Rachaele Raynoff, the agency's press secretary, wrote in an e-mail that "as with any application, City Planning's door is open to discuss with potential applicants and their representatives proposals for land use changes. This applies equally to a community board preparing a '197A plan' for its future or a university or a private developer."
Other groups identified in the lobbying commission's report said that the firm had not contacted them.
"I have not been lobbied by anybody," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9. "I always assumed these people had legal advisers," he said and added in reference to Kramer Levin, "I am vaguely aware that they attended some meetings."
Reyes-Montblanc expressed confidence that other officials had not been unduly influenced by the University. "We feel that we have strong support from both the borough president and our council members," he said. The Community Board has produced its own plan to rezone parts of Manhattanville, which differs in several ways from Columbia's vision for the area.
City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights) said at a recent CB9 meeting that he had not been contacted by Kramer Levin or any other lobbyist for Columbia.
In response to the lobbying commission's report, Tom DeMott, head of the Coalition to Preserve Community, wrote in an e-mail to supporters that "the CPC is working with Columbia students and others to find a way to do our own lobbying." He clarified that the CPC had no plans to mount a formal lobbying campaign that would have to be registered with the lobbying commission.
"Our lobbying perspective is a little different. ... We have to work with students, we have to work with community members to be the best advocates we can be," DeMott said.