City Council Reso Calls for Community Board Term Limits and Transparency

A resolution brewing in the City Council recommends major reform for community boards.

Ben Kallos. Photo: NYC Council
Ben Kallos. Photo: NYC Council

Introduced by freshman City Council Member Ben Kallos, the reso calls for board members to serve a maximum of five consecutive two-year terms, and for unspecified term limits for board and committee chairs. It also recommends a transparent appointment process and highly publicized, multi-pronged recruitment efforts.

This would mark a dramatic shift from current practices, where board members can be appointed for life and borough presidents often refuse to discuss how they are chosen.

Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and served on Manhattan Community Board 8, based the resolution on his policy report, “Improving Community Boards in New York City.” The report recommends a standardized application process that would require reappointment applications and put an end to “automatic reappointment.” Employees of elected officials and executive committee members of political parties would be excluded from board membership.

The resolution calls for an “independent screening panel” for all boroughs, modeled on an existing Manhattan panel put in place by Scott Stringer. Stringer’s successor Gale Brewer enlisted community groups to screen some 600 applicants, including long-time board members, for her first round of appointments this year.

Though community board votes are technically advisory, DOT will generally not implement significant street redesigns without their endorsement. Community boards have a mixed record on street safety, and some board members appear to be reflexively resistant to life-saving street designs, regardless of public support or DOT data. An infusion of members whose priorities go beyond maintaining free on-street parking would be a refreshing change for many boards across the boroughs. More broadly, these reforms would ideally result in boards that more accurately reflect evolving demographics.

Of course, some are content with the status quo. “Our office will not be supporting this resolution,” said a spokesperson for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “In fact, our office feels that this resolution is not necessary.”

“At this point, I’d like reform to be voluntary,” Kallos told the Queens Chronicle. At this writing the resolution is sponsored by an array of council newcomers and heavy-hitters: Brad Lander, Jimmy Vacca, Mark Levine, Danny Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, Ydanis Rodriguez, Debi Rose, Ritchie Torres, and Peter Koo.

  • Bolwerk

    Just get rid of community boards. They give electeds and government officials one more excuse to ignore people’s needs in favor of a few NIMBYs. If something isn’t done, elected officials and bureaucrats deserve all the blame (or praise).

  • JK

    Cheers to CM Kallos and the co-sponsors for pushing this much needed reform. CM Kallos is being diplomatic, “voluntary” reforms are not happening at a meaningful pace or scale. Community boards are not the supreme court. There should be no life appointments. Turnover is the sign of a healthy, representative democracy. Too many CBs are moribund and do not at all reflect the demographics or perspectives of the the communities they pretend to represent. I’d also like to see a residency requirement for CBs, since in many CBs non-profit groups, quasi-gov development agencies and businesses seem to have a disproportionate voice. As long as we’re swinging for the fences, proposed legislation should also put in a
    graduated phase out of long serving members. Someone who has already
    served twenty years should not get another ten.

  • Diognetus

    These changes have more to do with revenge than good policy. Ben Kallos is using them as justification for throwing members off his local community board because they supported his opponent in the primary for his Council seat.

    Furthermore, these changes (at least term limits) are not even good policy. We should consider term limits when we think an overly long tenure in office will corrupt the officeholder. But since this is an unpaid position of relatively little power (it is still only an advisory board) this isn’t a major concern. Instead, the main impact of term limits would be to prevent people who have real expertise, whether on policy or about their neighborhood from being able to continue serving.

    Finally, I’ve never heard of a lifetime appointment to a community board–such a thing certainly doesn’t exist in Manhattan. Instead, every two years everyone has to re-apply, and can be taken off the board if the Borough President decides to do so.

  • Reader

    We have people on my community board who have been serving since the 1980s. The are accountable to no one, save the current City Council member and Borough President. That’s hardly a democracy.

    And “relatively little power” requires a definition of “relatively.” We’ve seen vital street safety projects supported by hundreds of people be denied or delayed because of one or two community board members. That’s a lot more power than community activists or regular concerned citizens who are not board members have.

    You also need to define “expertise.” It’s one thing to be familiar with the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood or to know its people and businesses, as one tends to do when one lives somewhere for a long time. That’s a valuable thing for any involved community member to have. But it’s another thing to pretend to know anything about transportation, architecture, urban planning, or landmarking, as we often see community board members do, much to the detriment of smart policy making.

    Reform of these outdated community boards is very much needed. Ten years is plenty of time for people to build and maintain expertise while ensuring enough turnover that fresh voices are continually inserted into the process.

  • Diognetus

    “We have people on my community board who have been serving since the 1980s. The are accountable to no one, save the current City Council member and Borough President. That’s hardly a democracy.”

    Community Boards are not a directly democratic institution–its members are not elected but appointed. Putting in term limits will not change this, nor does it make them more accountable. I think this contributes to a perception problem. Since CB members aren’t elected, they don’t need to publicize their successes. Thus, people tend to only pay attention to them when they fail and not notice them when they are working well. So they focus more on getting rid of the people they disagree with and don’t worry about whether doing so causes the board to also lose valuable members.

    “You also need to define “expertise.” It’s one thing to be familiar with the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood or to know its people and businesses, as one tends to do when one lives somewhere for a long time. That’s a valuable thing for any involved community member to have. But it’s another thing to pretend to know anything about transportation, architecture, urban planning, or landmarking, as we often see community board members do, much to the detriment of smart policy making.”

    My local community board includes architects, transportation activists, current/former political candidates and staffers, former city officials, and other people with real expertise. Yes, it is true that many CB members pretend to expertise they don’t have, but many of them do have real expertise, and it would be a shame to lose that for no reason.

    “Reform of these outdated community boards is very much needed. Ten years is plenty of time for people to build and maintain expertise while ensuring enough turnover that fresh voices are continually inserted into the process.”

    I’m not opposed to reforming the community boards, I’m just opposed to some of the changes proposed here.

  • andrelot

    What is the point of keeping this arcane institution.

    A board of appointed representatives, the lower echelon of political patronage, with no teeth or normative power, but providing a lot of smoke cover for the more serious (and sometimes damaging) work that is done on the Council (which can they claim “the community supports this”).

    If they want “input from the community” then let the community elect representatives.

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