Why Is Queens BP Melinda Katz Refusing to Divulge 2015 CB Appointments?

Streetsblog has filed a freedom of information request after Queens Borough President Melinda Katz refused to provide us a list of 2015 community board appointments.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz thinks parking mandates are more important than Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter

Community boards play an outsized role in determining how safe New York City streets are for walking, biking, and driving. Though their votes are supposed to be advisory, DOT rarely implements a project without the blessing of the local board. This holds true even for proposals that are intended to keep people from being injured and killed by motorists.

In Queens, community boards have skirted voting rules to renounce livable streets projects, rejected a request from a small business for a bike corral, declared that secure bike parking has “no purpose,” and prioritized auto traffic lanes over safety at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

On the upside, Queens CBs endorsed safety measures for Northern Boulevard, Broadway, and Queens Boulevard, three of the borough’s most dangerous streets for walking and biking. With DOT poised to make improvements prescribed by the agency’s pedestrian safety action plan, including the long-awaited redesign of Queens Boulevard, community boards will help shape the borough’s streetscape, for better or worse, for the foreseeable future.

Community board members are nominated by council members and borough presidents, though beeps ultimately decide who is appointed. For some idea of how fossilized boards can become, safe streets opponents Vinicio Donato and Lucille Hartmann made news recently by stepping down from Queens CB 1 after 40 years. As a candidate for borough president, Katz said she supported term limits for community board members, but she now opposes them.

Given the power wielded by community boards, borough presidents should release appointee lists publicly as a matter of course, with each person’s professional affiliations, length of tenure, and the elected official who recommended them. Of the five current borough presidents, Manhattan’s Gale Brewer comes closest to the ideal — though it remains a mystery why Brewer continues to reappoint people who are obstacles to safer streets and better transit.

The appointment process is normally completed by early April of each year. Katz, who took office in 2014, released the names of her first round of new appointees last June, but not a list of every appointee.

After Streetsblog submitted multiple inquiries to Katz’s office requesting a list of 2015 community board appointees, press coordinator Michael Scholl declined to send one and recommended filing a freedom of information request instead.

Why would Katz’s office withhold information that other borough presidents make public via press release? That’s an open question. Meanwhile, I filed a FOIL for 2015 and 2014 Queens community board appointees.

We’ll have updates on this story as it develops.

  • Jesse

    A lot of the intransigence on community boards is due to older people — often retirees — for whom their service feels something like a political office you don’t get paid for. Some of these people may have had political aspirations when they were younger and now see their membership on the board as their role to play in the political process.

    Streetsblog is right to call them out as enemies of safe streets. But they are not the ones really failing here. Stubborn CB members who prioritize parking over safety have always been a problem. The real issue is the DOT who has allowed their advisory opinions to become a de facto veto on any street change.

    The CB members are not elected officials and more than that, the members of any one community can’t have final say on how a transportation network is built throughout the entire city. Transportation networks have to persist throughout all parts of the city in order for them to work and they serve more people than just the communities they run through. And it’s really DOT’s failure to see this — or just to make that case to the CBs or to the city as a whole — that’s really disappointing.

    The few bad apples on the community boards are basically retirees whose hobby is sitting on a board instead of playing checkers in the park. The DOT on the other hand is an actual government agency of supposed experts who really should know better than to let them have final say.

  • J

    I think this is an interesting point. So yo’re saying that as long as CBs are unaccountable and undemocratic, DOT should be ignore their recommendations, if they go directly against safety. It seems that Streetsblog editors feel that it will be easier to get CBs to be reformed than to get DOT to change its position and ignore CBs more often, although they called for both.

    A counterpoint is that CB approval can lend a much-needed sense of legitimacy to projects, especially in the face of opposition. There has also been a LOT of progress in improving CBs, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where CBs are now requesting protected bike lanes faster than DOT can provide them. Reforming CBs is also an educational process, where community learns about different ideas, and even if they disagree, they are forced to have the conversation, and new people who are not engaged who are disappointed with the outcome may become engaged as a result.

    Sadly, despite the progress, CB reform has been wildly uneven. There is still a shocking lack of accountability for CB members, new and old, and we still use a highly flawed method to create a CB that represents the community. In short, this is an interesting strategical debate for the advocacy community, and I’m curious to hear what others think.

  • Brad Aaron

    Right, but DOT answers to the City Council, and it seems CMs and BPs carry water for CB members, rather than the other way around. If DOT rebelled against the boards, the council could, say, further codify board power over DOT decisions.

    Comment [from me] copied from another thread:

    There is little political upside for electeds in stripping CBs of their power, at least for now. Going after electeds for appointing boneheads makes the most sense, and is the only play, really, unless and until the system can be reformed. That’s a much heavier lift.

  • Jesse

    I guess I just think that CBs are always going to fall victim to NIMBYism to some extent. And even if they are representing their “community” in the sense that they represent the few blocks they were appointed to, they may not represent the “community” in the larger sense.

    If you ask Queens residents on the whole if they want a better bike lane network, you might get widespread support. If you poll the people who live on any one block and ask them if they want a bike lane right outside their front door even if it means giving up parking spaces, they’ll say “how about one block over?”

    That’s why we also have elected officials and their appointed agencies who deal with matters on a citywide basis.

  • Jesse

    I learned something! Why did I ever doubt you, Streetsblog? You guys think about this stuff as your job instead of in lieu of your job.

  • anon

    now I understand the problem. Old people are bad, young people are good. Communities should not have a voice in planning for their communities–community-based planning is bad. Instead of fixing the problem–we understand that it is always better to let agencies make all decisions for the community

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