Gotham Gazette Sun, 23 Sep 2018 00:55:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy comm board 3

A Manhattan community board meeting (photo: @ManhattanCB5)

Community boards are our most participatory, hyper-local form of government in New York City. In November, we will have the chance to vote for necessary reforms that will help ensure our community boards represent the diverse perspectives of our communities. These reforms will likely include term limits for community board members, greater transparency in the appointment process, and better technical assistance for community board members to make fully informed decisions. They will be put before voters as a result of Mayor de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission; exact ballot language is due early next month.

As a member of my own Community Board 2 in Queens since April 2017, I have seen the need to open up our community boards, and I urge you to support these measures in November.

Our community boards play a crucial role in shaping the development of our neighborhoods, advising elected officials and agencies on the delivery of city services, and communicating with the broader community at large. To that end, it is crucial that community board membership look, feel, and think with the diverse perspectives that make up each community. It is essential that people of varied backgrounds -- professional, racial, ethnic, and otherwise -- are able to represent their neighborhoods.

Term limits, while not a panacea for better board representation, will help ensure that turnover on the community boards ushers in diverse voices that too often get crowded out when there aren’t many vacancies on boards. True diversity and genuine community representation on community boards can contribute to better city services. After all, community boards whose membership consists of a more holistic cross-section of the community will be in a better position to accurately advise city agencies and local elected officials on the efficacy of city services and additional needs that exist throughout a given community board district.

Board members who are term-limited, as I hope to be one day, can continue to serve in other vital capacities: civic associations, parks conservancies, tenant groups, are just a few of the ways that everyone in the community can participate. This is, of course, in addition to attending community board meetings and speaking at the public comment section, which is open to everyone, including former board members.

The appointment process itself is also in dire need of reform. Board applications should ask not just for character references and organizational affiliation, but also ask applicants about their community knowledge, overall civic participation, and other skills that will be valuable to the boards. This allows board members to be appointed who may not have ties to political offices or previous knowledge about the complex application process. Further, community board membership should be evaluated to assess for diversity among members. Boards that reflect the communities they serve will be stronger and more robust, able to accomplish more for our neighbors.

We also need better technical assistance on the boards to help make objective, thoughtful decisions and requests when crucial issues come before us. This is especially true on matters of public safety and critical land use decisions.

Community boards serve an important purpose. Board members hold city agencies and locally elected officials accountable to local needs. From sidewalk cafes to bike lanes to liquor licenses, community boards touch on everyday life for all New Yorkers. That’s why it’s so critical to open up the process of applying to the community board, and make sure that borough presidents and City Council members place a premium on selecting board members from a broader swath of the community. Join me in November to support these reforms.

Jeremy Rosenberg is a community activist, attorney, and member of Community Board 2 which serves Sunnyside,Woodside, and Long Island City. Reach him on Twitter at @jeremyr1992.

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Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy Thu, 23 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Community Board Reps Tell City Council They Need More Funding Community board city council

Council budget hearing (photo: John McCarten)

Community boards need more money. That was the overarching message provided to the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee by two district managers for Manhattan community boards at a preliminary budget hearing on Monday.

The mayor’s $88.7 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1 of this year, outlines $17.4 million in total funding for all 59 community boards, which are local panels of community members appointed by the borough presidents and serving in unpaid and largely advisory capacities to improve their neighborhoods. The responsibilities do not carry the weight of a binding vote, but do carry an influential advisory opinion on matters ranging from land use, budgeting, and liquor licenses.

Each board receives around $234,000 in “base allocation” for operating costs, as well as a variable amount in rent depending on space requirements and location. The district managers -- full-time community board employees -- argue that this is not nearly enough.

“We ask the Council to consider an increase in the annual budget of community boards,” said Angel Mescain, district manager of Manhattan Community Board 11 in East Harlem, in testimony to the committee, “to support the vital role they play in planning and quality of life advocacy for their communities.”

Community boards are perpetually understaffed, many argue, as they attempt to consider major issues and decisions facing their communities. The 51 elected City Council members typically have sizable taxpayer-funded staffs that can help members navigate the city’s dense bureaucracy and serve constituents. On the other hand, Mescain noted that his community board has enough resources for three full-time staffers and one part-time staffer. Lucian Reynolds, the district manager for Manhattan Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan, gave a similar prognosis.

Reynolds, who joined CB1 in February after working for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, said that the understaffing leads to issues not receiving their due time and consideration, with problems going unresolved or being inadequately resolved as a result.

“Community boards must decide whether they wish to narrow the roles of office staff towards land use and policy as CB1 has done over the years,” he said, “or to instead focus on constituent services as many other boards must do.”

As largely local advisory councils, community boards closely study issues and consider challenges and opportunities in neighborhoods. Without experts on staff, they also often rely on borough president offices, the City Planning Commission, and the local City Council member. The boards often try to influence those very officials and entities as well, attempting to reach community consensus on contentious issues. Community boards across the city vary in terms of their activity, acumne, and approach to local issues like development, bike lanes, and more; and the interest of local residents in serving on them also varies widely. Community boards are often derided as being packed with "NIMBYs" or people who always say "not in my backyard" to things like taller buildings and homeless shelters, or even integration of schools. Approaches vary widely.

But the boards say they face perpetual staffing shortages and a lack of funds for basic amenities offered to other levels of government, such as technical support around live-streaming meetings and putting information out on social media.

The Council members present at the hearing for the community board panel -- Fernando Cabrera, Kalman Yeger, and Adrienne Adams -- have all served on community boards and heaped praise upon them, stating that they intended to secure greater funding.

“The amount of work that communities do is the best investment we could make for the dollars that we invest in the city,” said Cabrera, the governmental operations committee chair and a former member of Bronx Community Board 7. “And it has a direct impact in our community.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Community Board Reps Tell City Council They Need More Funding Tue, 20 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members torres alatriste

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste)

In an effort to ensure that local community boards are representative of their neighborhoods, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres will introduce a bill on Wednesday requiring the city to publish demographic information about board members.

The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ben Kallos, is straightforward and reads much like a general population census. It would require the reporting of community board members’ names, neighborhoods, occupations, and employment, duration of board service, who they were appointed by, as well as aggregations by borough.

The bill also mandates the publishing of members’ attendance records and the number of vacancies on each community board.

The most important aspect of the bill, according to Torres, is the reporting of detailed demographic information -- obtained through a voluntary survey -- including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, income, employment status, marital status, level of education, disability status, veteran status, language spoken at home or if they own or lease a car.

“The conventional wisdom is that community boards are the most local unit of government, the most local form of representation,” said Council Member Torres, in a phone conversation with Gotham Gazette. “We want to ensure that they are genuinely representative of the districts where they’re located.”

In the past few months, community boards across the city have shown the power they wield in influencing major city decisions. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which requires changes to the city zoning rules and the individual rezoning of several neighborhoods in the five boroughs, is under fire after more than two dozen community boards came out against the citywide rezoning plans. While the boards play a largely advisory role, the feedback has forced the mayor to take a step back, reconsider his approach, and acknowledge that changes will be made.

Taking this and other examples of community board influence into consideration, Torres, a Bronx Democrat, feels it is important to judge whether such opposition is representative of larger community preferences. His bill would provide the data to help do that, he says. Torres believes that community boards can be a “lagging indicator” indicative more of the past than present situation of a community so it’s necessary to ensure diversity in their composition.

“I would argue that the more diverse a community board, the greater its capacity for representation and broad-based community engagement,” he said.

Community board members are unpaid local representatives appointed by borough presidents and are often politically-connected, long-time local advocates. They have the most power relative to land use issues and can also be effective in terms of persuasion, especially in terms of influencing City Council members and borough presidents. City Council members often have experience on their local community board before being elected. There are no term limits for community board members.

Torres’ bill isn’t the first attempt at making community boards accountable, transparent, and diverse. In April 2014, Council Member Kallos sponsored a resolution calling for borough presidents to adopt best practices for recruiting and appointing community board members. The resolution was based on a report from earlier that year which came out of a hearing of the governmental operations committee, which Kallos chairs. The report recommended, among other measures, more inclusive outreach and recruitment methods and a standardized application process for board members. There has been some reform by borough presidents, but much still varies borough by borough.

Another bill, from December 2014, also attempted to establish term limits for community board members to ensure evolving memberships. (Torres opposes term limits saying that there is “no one-size-fits-all solution” for community boards in different boroughs.) That bill has not seen widespread support in the Council.

Torres’ bill will be introduced at Wednesday’s full-body Stated Meeting of the Council and will go before the governmental operations committee. Torres expects that there will be sufficient cooperation from community boards on the optional surveys and also from Council members and borough presidents. The idea is that more demographic data will help make it clear that more should be done to help diversify the boards where needed.

“My message to community boards is this: There’s nothing to fear from diversity,” said Torres. “The goal isn’t perfect proportionality but broad-based representation.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members Wed, 06 Jan 2016 00:56:18 +0000