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Law Department Issues Warning as Community Boards Consider Charter Commission's Term Limits Proposal

Mayor town hall

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

One of three questions placed on this year’s general election ballot by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission would, if approved by voters, impose term limits on community board members. Though the proposal has left many community board members fuming about the potential impact, the city’s Law Department has sought to remind the boards that they cannot pass official resolutions taking a position on a ballot question.

In a September 13 memo sent to the director of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, Marco Carrion (who was also a commissioner on the charter revision commission), and circulated to the city’s 59 community boards a week later, officials from de Blasio's Law Department emphasized that boards may be tempted to speak out for or against the ballot question but must maintain neutrality.

“It is unlawful and inappropriate for a community board, acting as a community board, to take a position in favor of or against a Charter Revision Commission proposal,” reads the memo, signed by Stephen Louis, chief of the Division of Legal Counsel, and Stephen Goulden, senior counsel in the division.

The ballot proposal, approved earlier this month, would create staggered term limits for community board members and impose reforms to the appointment and recruiting process in order to diversify membership. Community boards are made up of about 50 members each, half of whom are nominated by City Council members, and are appointed by the borough presidents for two-year terms. There is no limit currently on how many terms a member may serve and some have served for decades on their local boards, leading many to testify before the mayor’s commission about the need for change.

At the same time, the commission’s proposal was met with much consternation from community board members who fear term limits could lead to brain drain, a loss of talent, and engaged members who they believe act in the best interests of their communities. Of the five borough presidents, only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams was in favor of the ballot proposal.

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot]

“I don’t think the city got a real representation of how community boards feel about this,” said Brian Kaszuba, a member of Community Board 10 in Brooklyn, who said the memo would deprive boards of an important voice in the process. Kaszuba noted that many of the commission’s hearings were held over the summer when community boards were on hiatus and that the ballot proposals were advanced without boards having enough time to discuss and take a position on them.

A law department spokesperson denied that the memo silences or weakens community boards, noting that the guidance that was issued is a refresher on long-standing policy based on case law. “Court decisions on this subject largely rely on the New York State Constitution’s prohibition of the ‘gift’ of public funds,” the memo reads.

The guidance also does not preclude community board members from speaking out in a personal capacity, as long as they do not use community board personnel or resources to do so. A community board -- which can educate but not advocate, according to the Law Department -- could still feasibly hold a forum or discussion on one or more ballot questions, for instance, but could not push the public to vote for or against.

Kaszuba conceded that it may be inappropriate to use a board’s funds or other resources for partisan campaigning, but was unconvinced that resolutions could constitute a “gift” of public funds. “None of the case law is on point with regards to passage of resolutions,” he said. “Many community boards are in the dark about exactly what this means.”

The Law Department spokesperson did say that the department may issue further guidance for clarity.

Notably, such a memo was not sent out last year before a question was presented in November to voters statewide on whether to establish a constitutional convention to revise the state constitution (a proposal that de Blasio opposed). At least one community board, CB 7 in Queens, passed a resolution opposing the question, which would seem to be a violation of the Law Department guidance. CB 7 also passed a resolution, three days before the Law Department memo was disseminated last week, coming out against the charter commission’s ballot proposal. The Law Department spokesperson, however, could not say what penalty that would invite.

“Community boards and their members ought to have the ability to weigh in on the proposal,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “That’s part of democracy. Their voice should be heard on a matter that impacts them directly.”

Camarda, though, noted that he personally witnessed a significant amount of testimony given to the charter commission regarding community boards. “There was a substantial group of people who were interested in the issue and weighed in on both sides,” he said. “If a community board missed out on an opportunity to weigh in, I think they weren’t paying attention.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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