Charter Revision Commission: Community Boards Don’t Look Like the Communities They Serve

The commission's staff report floats the idea of limiting community board tenure to no more than five two-year terms.

Limiting community board members to no more than 10 years of service is one idea in the Charter Revision Commission's new report. Photo: David Meyer
Limiting community board members to no more than 10 years of service is one idea in the Charter Revision Commission's new report. Photo: David Meyer

Community boards should better represent the districts they serve, according to testimony provided to the Charter Revision Commission.

Established by Mayor de Blasio at the beginning of his second term, the commission is soliciting ideas to improve how city government works. During a series of hearings, community boards emerged as one of five policy areas that drew the most comments, according to a new report by commission staff [PDF].

Community boards were written into the charter in 1963. And when it comes to wielding their outsize clout over how street space is allocated in the 21st century, many (but not all) behave as if Futurama is still the cutting edge.

The lack of turnover contributes to the problem. Borough presidents and council members reappoint the same people over and over again, allowing membership to stagnate to the point that boards “may no longer reflect the changing Community Districts that they serve.”

One way this manifests is the insistence on maintaining free curbside parking for the few at everyone else’s expense. From the report:

To demonstrate the impact of this lack of diversity, one member of the public described a past vote by a Community Board recommending against a variance for a non-profit health clinic due to parking availability concerns, despite the fact that the clinic “would have addressed an important need in [the] community: [i]mproved health care outcomes for low income immigrants of color.”

To help diversify community board rosters, members of the public, officials, and policy experts testified that board appointments should be limited to anywhere from two to five two-year terms. The drawback of shorter term limits is the loss of expertise. It can take a few years to learn the ropes. But even 10-year term limits (longer than what’s available to members of the City Council) would cull scores of lifers like Queens CB 11’s Bernard Haber, who’s held his seat since the 1970s. The report recommends further study.

Appointment processes that generally favor the politically connected were also singled out for reform. Application protocols vary from borough to borough. In Queens, for example, it’s secretive enough that Borough President Melinda Katz tries to hide appointees’ names from the public. In some cases, community boards function mainly as extensions of the local political boss’s influence network. The report suggests standardizing the appointment process to make it more legible and accessible to the broader public.

Finally, the report says community boards need more resources, including access to planning expertise. Another proposal is to provide board members with training in areas where they hold influence, like land use.

Legislation in the City Council endorsing community board term limits, better demographic representation, and a more transparent appointment process has been introduced but gone nowhere in recent years.

The Charter Revision Commission will continue its work through the summer and fall, with more public hearings coming up this month. Ideas that surface during the process can be incorporated into ballot initiatives to amend the charter, city legislation, or updates to city rules. It will be up to the 15-member commission to generate final recommendations and ballot proposals for November.

  • mikecherepko

    Community boards should be selected at random, such as from the phone book if we still used phone books. And we could deal with the lack of expertise by making community boards so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter.

  • 8FH

    You could actually make this work! Randomly select *x* addresses for each open position, then send letters inviting people to the board and requesting a response, then randomly select someone from those who respond. Offer either general or position specific training. Done.

  • Reader

    Expertise is different from institutional knowledge. There are many community board members who may have lots of longterm knowledge of the neighborhood who are absolute know-nothings when it comes to anything concerning planning.

    Term limits are a great idea.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Frankly, I’m a little nervous about this whole Charter Revision thing.

    Given the power of the public unions, and Bill DeBlasio’s plan for higher office, I could see a Community Board veto over everything on the ballot. And an exemption from property taxes for active and retired public employees. All scheduled to go into effect as DeBlasio leaves office.

    Either that or a term limit repeal, if DeBlasio decides that perhaps he won’t be President after all.

    The best shot giving a better break to the serfs was state Constitutional Convention, which everyone involved in the Charter Revision Commission was against.

  • Daphna

    There boro Presidents could easily appoint different people even without term limits.
    As far as term limits, I would rather see a maximum of three two-year terms, and then an option to apply again after three years off the board or so.

  • Daphna

    Speaking of inconsequential…
    Community Boards were part of the city’s old governing structure with the Borough Presidents governed and the Council of Alderman were figureheads. Then the Council of Aldermen became the City Council, grew from 40 to over 50 members, and gained governing power while the Borough Presidents became figurehead positions – advisory-only. As such, Community Boards are advisory-only too. Government could be streamlined a bit and all those unnecessary figurehead positions could be reduced. Perhaps eliminate those positions entirely, or since that is unlikely to be politically popular, at least reduce the staff and budget for these figurehead positions.

  • WellAdjustedAndroid

    Uhhhhh wut? There’s so much nonsense in this post I’m not even sure what its trying to say. Lol

  • WellAdjustedAndroid

    Community Boards should be even more advisory than they already are. No budgets. No binding decision making ability. Heck they shouldn’t even take votes. They should simply be a place where people can go to get transparency about planned developments and land use issues….a place where old men can yell at clouds and feel important.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What I’m trying to say is things that have been done in the past, or attempted to be done in the past, might be slipped in.

    Proposals to exempt retired public employees from most property taxes have been repeatedly introduced in the state legislature (by not counting their retirement income when determining if they are eligible for exemptions as “poor seniors.”)

    Term limits have been “extended” once before.

    These could be slipped in there later.

    And process lobby types such as Tom Angotti, a former colleague of mine at NYC Planning decades ago, have always wanted “the community” to rule rather than just being “advisory.” The latest Charter Revision Commission report cites his testimony. If he had his way, there would be no Citibike.

    “Wut?”

    A term used by those still in their youth, and thereby liable to be guilty of insufficient cynicism.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What she said. We have real elections for City Council now, thanks to term limits, so we don’t need someone else to “represent the community.”

  • van_vlissingen

    These are the upcoming public hearings. The CB crowd will be out there in force to say they should be able to serve till the day they die. I happen to believe especially in an unelected body term limits are important. Please go to these hearings and show your support.
    Public Hearing Schedule:
    Manhattan – Monday, July 23, 2018 at 6PM
    WHERE: New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square South, Greenberg Lounge, New York, NY 10012
    Bronx – Tuesday, July 24, 2018 at 6PM
    WHERE: Hostos Community College, 120 East 149th Street, 2nd Floor, Bronx, NY 10451
    Brooklyn – Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at 6PM
    WHERE: St. Francis College, 4305, 180 Remsen St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
    Queens – Thursday, July 26, 2018 at 6PM
    WHERE: Queens Borough Hall, 120-55 Queens Blvd, Kew Gardens, NY 11424
    Staten Island – Tuesday, July 31, 2018 at 6:30PM
    WHERE: McKee High School, 290 St. Marks Place, Auditorium, Staten Island, NY 10301

  • Community Boards are advisory. In less polite terms: they are klown kolleges where self-important local busybodies can run around until they tire themselves out.

    The making of decisions is the function exclusively of our elected representatives and of the department heads appointed by the mayor. There is no legitimate role in the process for Community Boards. That these assemblages of lunatics and half-wits are ever taken seriously on matters of planning is infuriating.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A libertarian is a liberal who was mugged by a co-op board (or community board or homeowners’ association).

    https://www.citylab.com/equity/2013/02/tyranny-homeowners-associations/4731/

  • van_vlissingen

    Thus far the commission has been pretty transparent. You can watch every single meeting they had on YouTube (if you’re so inclined). All their suggested changes to the charter need to be voted on in November. I am concerned that CB members will be out in force to suggest that they are indeed the true community versus “those people” that just got there.

  • Alsivi

    My CB (13 Brooklyn) does not have a web page. They were granted $12,000 in 2012 to start one but nothing has happened and no one will tell me why not. Obviously they want to cater to only a part of the community.

  • Larry Littlefield

    My experience with New York government, more on the state side than the city side, is reality is what takes place at 3 am.

    My question is, what prompted the need for a Charter Revision Commission to begin with? Who wanted it, and why? I don’t recall any public outcry for changes to the charter, or any discussion of whether this was needed before it was announced. And no one is paying attention.

    The only logical explanation I see in the documents is an attempt to scale back public financing for elected officials who don’t face real elections, a flaw in the otherwise good (compared with the state and federal level) election system in New York City.

    But if that is all that is going on, the City Council could have voted to put a fix on the ballot itself.

    So I suspect, based on the past, that the real agenda is what I don’t see. Particularly given the success of the powers that be in getting rid of the possibility of a state Constitutional Convention just one year ago.

  • Peter Engel

    I think your worry about de Blasio’s plans for higher office or the power of public unions is misplaced.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well see. Bad things happen to those not in on the deal whenever NY politicians aspire to higher office. Just look at the deals cut by “Governor” McCall, “President” Pataki, “Senator” Giuliani, “President” Bloomberg, and “President” Spitzer.

    Not to mention “President” Lindsay and “President” Rockefeller.

    Retroactive pension increases. Special tax breaks. Debts. Etc.

    Not its “President” Cuomo and “President” DeBlasio.

  • A libertarian denies the legitimacy of state power. By contrast, one who denounces the Community Boards affirms the legitimacy of governmental authority.

    Co-op boards and homeowners’ associations are not governments; they are not even bodies appointed by government, as Community Boards are. They are private entities which exercise state-like authority, but are unfettered by the accountablility that (sometimes only theoretically, though sometimes emerging into reality) constrains state actors.

  • redbike

    Thanks for the specific list of dates and locations.

    Streetsblog: add these dates and locations to the weekly calendar post.

    I support term limits and we already have ’em. We call them “elections”. For non-elected / appointed positions (e.g.: community board members), term limits should be hard-wired into the system, and with much shorter terms than is being proposed.

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