Gotham Gazette

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Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy

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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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