Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1151 Fri, 19 Jul 2019 06:27:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Term Limits Heighten Need for Community Boards to Become Data Literate https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8121-term-limits-heighten-need-for-community-boards-to-become-data-literate https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8121-term-limits-heighten-need-for-community-boards-to-become-data-literate mayorsofficefiscal

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


On November 6, New York City voters approved a ballot proposal to impose term limits on community board members for the first time since their role was written into the city’s Charter in 1963. The proposal was introduced by Mayor de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission and proved to be the most contentious of the three proposals listed on this year’s ballot.

Several City Council members and one borough president, among others, argued that imposing term limits would help diversify boards that have historically failed to represent the demographics of the neighborhoods they represent. Dissenters argued that forcing the removal of long-term members would threaten the already tenuous authority of boards to oppose land use and licensing proposals that would negatively impact their communities. These folks claimed that limiting board terms would undermine the board’s institutional knowledge and would make it possible for real estate developers to take advantage of inexperienced board members.

The debate, at least because of the opposition argument, pins diversity against authority - representative democracy against an ability to get things done; it subtlety though forcefully suggests that community boards - the city’s most local formal government body, of which there are 59 across the five boroughs - cannot have both. How has it become so intractable for boards to effectively and legitimately speak on behalf of their communities, while also reflecting the composition of their communities? At BetaNYC - a community-based organization dedicated to improving lives in New York through civic design, technology, and data - we believe that disparities in information and information infrastructure play a major role in propagating this problematic dichotomy.

In local New York City governance, there is a significant power imbalance when it comes to who has access to information, who has the expertise and experience to manipulate it, and who has the authority to present it as evidence. When coming before community boards, real estate developers and business owners often gather and aggregate data to craft a narrative as to how their proposals will positively impact a community or to demonstrate how their proposals will not harm a community. Developers may suggest that a rezoning will result in a certain number of new jobs or new affordable housing units to sway a community board towards supporting their proposal. A restaurant owner may present data to argue that setting up a sidewalk café will have minimal impact on foot traffic and pedestrian safety.

Since community boards can only put together advisory resolutions, it is important for them to be able to legitimate their arguments for or against the proposals with evidence. However, many community boards do not have the technical literacy or infrastructure to fact check the presented data or to offer counter-posing statistics. With the approval of the term limits ballot proposal, their ability to do so is further compromised.

It takes time to learn the intricacies of zoning and licensing law, let alone to develop the skills to aggregate and present data in ways that can affect zoning and licensing decisions - all of which board members must accomplish on volunteered time. The fact that elected officials are concerned that diversifying board voices will undermine the board’s authority highlights a much deeper issue - that the balance of information access, expertise, and legitimacy in the city’s formal decision-making processes is far from equitable and just.

Ironically, the information and expertise that community boards do bring to their positions - rich experiential knowledge of the history, people, and problems that characterize their communities - often gets written off as anecdotal evidence or angry voices as their advisory resolutions move through the city’s processes. This evidence is often considered to lack the authority of seemingly more objective (and less passionate) quantitative data. An unfortunate consequence of discourse around “data-driven decision-making” is that numbers and statistics have become a privileged form of evidence - with little reflection on the disparities in who controls these numbers and statistics, and what other forms of evidence are undermined in the process.

This is why BetaNYC has placed community boards at the center of our vision to expand civic data literacy and advocate for civic data infrastructure in New York City.

We believe that communities are empowered when their community boards are equipped with both the knowledge and the resources they need to challenge information practices that ignore or misrepresent people and problems in their neighborhoods. Since 2015, BetaNYC has been researching the technical and information infrastructure available to community board district offices and the data training offered to community board members and district office staff. We have documented the challenges boards face in leveraging the city’s open data resources to advance their resolutions, and have outlined several specific use cases in which community boards could leverage city or state data to back up their claims.

The results of this research are summarized in a report we published in October 2017, entitled “Data Design Challenges and Opportunities for NYC Community Boards.”

Through this research, we have been able to expand our technical offerings, develop new open data curriculum, and foster new collaborations with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT). We produced BoardStat (a 311 data dashboard), SLA Mapper (a tool to track noise complaints, underage drinking complaints, and restaurants healthgrades for bars seeking liquor license renewals), and Tenants Map (a tool that maps rent-stabilized units and housing-related 311 complaints to highlight potential tenant harassment).

BetaNYC also offers public training on how to use the city’s open data portal, how to map open data with Carto, and how to integrate open data with Census data using spreadsheets. We work closely with borough president offices to ensure that community boards know about and have access to these trainings. Finally, in October, we testified before the City Council in favor of legislation, Intro. 1137-2018, which would not only codify MODA into the city Charter, but also require that they offer training on the use of the open data portal to community boards. We are thrilled to see this legislation passed.

As new voices filter into community boards positions, it will be more important than ever to equip them with skills, resources, and tools to effectively advocate for their communities. If the new Civic Engagement Commission, the creation of which was also approved by voters through a ballot measure on Election Day, is going to provide technical assistance, it should focus on building up a new class of community board members who are digitally and data literate, savvy online/offline organizers, and great public facilitators. BetaNYC looks forward to working with boards, city agencies, and elected officials to ensure that these needs are met.

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Lindsay Poirier, Ph.D., is the Lab Manager at BetaNYC and soon to be Assistant Professor of Data Studies at University of California Davis. On Twitter @lindsaypoirier & @BetaNYC. (Note: Thanks to Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC, for advice on this piece.)

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Term Limits Heighten Need for Community Boards to Become Data Literate Tue, 04 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

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Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
What's the [DATA] Point? 3, with Cesar Perales, Charter Commission Chair https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8035-what-s-the-data-point-3-with-cesar-perales-charter-commission-chair https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8035-what-s-the-data-point-3-with-cesar-perales-charter-commission-chair whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 58 -- 3, Cesar Perales, chair of the mayor’s 2018 charter revision commission [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

cesarpicCesar Perales, chair of Mayor Bill de Blasio's 2018 Charter Revision Commission, joined the podcast to discuss the commission's work and the three ballot proposals it put forth that go before voters on Election Day: Tuesday, November 6, which deal with campaign finance reform, creating a civic engagement commission, and term limits for community board members, among other details.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's the [DATA] Point? 3, with Cesar Perales, Charter Commission Chair Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Law Department Issues Warning as Community Boards Consider Charter Commission's Term Limits Proposal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7961-law-department-issues-warning-as-community-boards-consider-charter-commission-s-term-limits-proposal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7961-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.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Law Department Issues Warning as Community Boards Consider Charter Commission's Term Limits Proposal Wed, 26 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7885-term-limits-and-other-community-board-reforms-strengthen-local-democracy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7885-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.

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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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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7555-community-board-reps-tell-city-council-they-need-more-funding https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7555-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.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6064-eyeing-diversity-new-push-for-demographic-data-on-community-board-members https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6064-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.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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