Lhota will recuse himself from Belmont LIRR expansion decisions
MTA chairman Joe Lhota will recuse himself from decisions about expanding Long Island Rail Road service at Belmont Park because of his role with the Madison Square Garden Company, which is involved in the construction of an arena for the New York Islanders at the state-run park, agency officials said Thursday.
The recusal came after local civic leaders accused Lhota of a “conflict of interest” that could affect his decision-making with the Belmont project.
Lhota is a director on the MSG Board and earned $150,000 last year, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents.
MSG is a major financial investor in the Oak View Group, which will operate the arena and has an equity interest in the project. MSG Networks, a separate company where Lhota also sits on the board, controls the broadcast television rights to Islanders games.
“Lhota has committed to recusing himself from any action involving MSG and his role as chairman,” said MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein.
An MTA official said the recusal includes the Belmont Park LIRR expansion.
The Belmont Park Community Coalition, comprised of Elmont, Floral Park and Bellerose civic leaders who oppose the arena, first raised concerns about Lhota’s role with MSG.
“We ask that in your capacity of chairman of the MTA, you recuse yourself from any and all decisions, discussions or deliberations regarding the Belmont LIRR stop,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Lhota Wednesday.
In a statement, MSG called Lhota a “valued independent member of our board who acts with the highest integrity.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has committed to expanding service at Belmont’s seasonal-only LIRR stop as part of the $1 billion project, which includes an 18,000-seat arena, 435,000 square feet of retail and a hotel with up to 250 rooms.
Lhota testified at a state budget hearing last month that he was “concerned” about expanding LIRR service at Belmont.
Key obstacles, he said, are the design of the Belmont spur off the main line and LIRR’s inability to add trains during the evening rush hour, when most Islanders fans would be traveling to weeknight games.
The coalition also wrote this week to Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development, the state agency which selected the Islanders bid. They complain that a 15-member committee, formed by ESD to address issues related to the development, is stacked with project supporters.
The Belmont Community Advisory Committee includes area residents, business owners and the mayors of Floral Park and South Floral Park.
Coalition member Aubrey Phillips called the committee a “sham” meant to comply with a state law requiring the development have community input.
“They are in compliance with the letter, but not the spirit of the law,” said Phillips, the vice president of the Parkhurst Civic Association.
ESD spokesman Jason Conwall said the agency’s “objective was to establish a committee to listen and work with all residents surrounding Belmont Park and we believe we’ve accomplished that.”