Term Limits Could Save Community Boards — And Make Them Live Up To Their First Name

Lack of turnover results in boards deeply out of touch with the constituents.

Community board term limits is one of three citywide proposals on the ballot next week. Photo: David Meyer
Community board term limits is one of three citywide proposals on the ballot next week. Photo: David Meyer

They’re whiter. They’re older. And they’re out of touch.

They’re the city’s community boards — and on Tuesday, you can change them for the better.

The 59 boards are the lowest, yet in some ways, most important, rung of democracy, responsible for vetting matters impacting the district on land-use, transportation, parks, and more. But appointments to the boards by council members and borough presidents are virtually lifetime, meaning members of the boards sit for decades as neighborhoods change around them.

Tuesday’s citywide ballot has three initiatives written by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission — one of which, Ballot Proposal 3, would cap community board terms at eight consecutive years, yet still allow a member to return after a two-year hiatus [PDF]. The proposal would also require the borough presidents to actively diversify the boards.

Supporters — including Mayor de Blasio, the city council’s Progressive Caucus, Transportation Alternatives, Streetspac, and a coalition of the city’s biggest labor unions — say that the term limits would fundamentally improve community boards in one simple way: members would no longer be de facto permanent appointees, which has, in turn, allowed boards to become deeply out of touch with constituents in their changing neighborhoods.

One need only look at issues related to auto travel, ownership and storage to understand the backward thinking of many community boards.

“Community Board 1 has more car owners than it has non-car owners,” City Council Member Antonio Reynoso told Streetsblog. “We can’t have people on community boards fighting for parking against the interest of saving lives.”

As an example, Reynoso cited the board’s debates over installing bike racks, which have gone on for hours in the past.

That phenomenon reaches far past Reynoso’s North Brooklyn district.

In Morningside Heights, Community Board 9 Transportation Chairwoman Carolyn Thompson has been rejecting bike lane projects for a quarter-century. Most recently, she’s refused to allow a vote on DOT’s plan for traffic-calming on Amsterdam Avenue, where four pedestrians were killed between 2010 and 2016. 

Thompson is no stranger to fighting bike lanes. In fact, she took the exact same line against a city plan to install painted lanes on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue when she served as CB 9 chairwoman in the mid-1990s.  

For safe streets activists, perhaps no community board has exemplified that phenomenon in the last year more than Queens Community Board 2, whose leadership spent months fighting protected bike lanes on 43rd and Skillman avenues because they didn’t want to repurpose parking spots for safety. In June, after the board’s transportation committee surprisingly endorsed DOT’s plans, The next day, Rep. Joe Crowley came out against the proposal and, later that week, the board voted it down.

A few weeks later, Crowley was defeated for reelection by primary challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was “agnostic” on the bike lane issue and won all but one precinct along the bike lane route. Two weeks later, the mayor announced the lanes would be implemented regardless.

Demographics put the disconnect between CB 2 and its constituency in clear context, according to data research and compiled by pseudonymous Queens activist Diedrich vanVlissingen. The district is 62.3 percent non-white; the composition of the community board itself is 64 percent white. Just 42 percent of district residents are over the age of 45 — compared to 72 percent of the board’s membership.

Image: Dietrich VanVlissingen
Image: Diedrich vanVlissingen

Turnover on the board isn’t terrible compared to others in the city, but a few members have been around for decades. One, Diane Ballek, was just honored for 25 years of service.

“All these neighborhoods have gone through demographic transitions. As these transitions have occurred, you’ve had some board members stay on,” vanVlissingen told Streetsblog. “That’s not to say they’re not doing a good job, but, ultimately, the people who can best represent their constituents are people who represent the constituents themselves.”

The data for the rest of the Queens’ community boards echoes that of CB 2. On a whole, the borough’s boards are white, older, and more male than the borough itself, according to vanVlissingen’s data.

Opponents of Proposal 3, including four of the five borough presidents, argue that term limits would deprive boards of much-needed institutional memory, giving outside interests like real estate developers a leg-up on district residents.

But that’s overstated, said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the odd-Beep out. Under the proposal, council members and borough presidents could still reappoint term limited individuals who’ve taken mandatory two-year hiatus.

And the referendum really isn’t that radical: If it passes, starting in 2019, board members would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms, after which they’d have to step down for at least two years. Plus, it would require borough presidents, for the first time, to post board applications online — a practice that is shockingly not uniform across all five boroughs.

And if the “brain drain” is of concern, voters can vote yes on Ballot Proposal 2, which would create a Civic Engagement Commission charged with providing policy expertise and resources to boards, among other responsibilities.

“This is not radical. The sky is not falling,” Adams said. “Far too often, I have noticed that men and women who serve for 20 or 30 years on the community boards, they come with predispositions as communities change.”

Queens community boards are on average older than the borough itself. Image: Dietrich VanVlissingen
Queens community boards are on average older than the borough itself. Image: Diedrich vanVlissingen

The four borough presidents’ concerns about giving developers a leg-up on land-use issues are unfounded, according to Esteban Giron, a tenant activist in Crown Heights who serves as a public member of the Brooklyn CB 9 land-use committee.

“If someone considers themselves to be too important to take two years off to maybe just sit on the [land-use] committee as a [public member], I would question whether their volunteer time is really as selfless as [the borough presidents] would like to believe,” Giron said. “Not having term limits allows longtime board members to develop cozy relationships with City Planning, and City Planning manipulates this process on behalf of the developers all the time.”

Jeremy Rosenberg, who at 26 is Queens CB 2’s youngest member, has crisscrossed the city speaking in support of the term-limits proposal.

“There’s a learning curve when you join, but everyone brings their own unique toolkit to the table,” Rosenberg said. “It only strengthens the community if the CBs have turnover and have a constantly regenerating set of voices. Just because someone is a new appointee, doesn’t mean they don’t understand these complicated processes.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer claims she has the matter under control, noting that 360 of Manhattan’s 600 community board spots have turned over since she took office in 2014.

But it’s not enough. CB 2 member Moitri Chowdury Savard, who has served on the board for a decade and could, presumably, serve much longer, will make the very rare move of voluntarily stepping down. She supports the term limits proposal, but told Streetsblog her decision to step down isn’t meant to send a message to her fellow long-serving colleagues. For Savard, it’s simply a matter of good governance.

“If you look at boards — all boards — there [should be] turnover,” she said. “I don’t think the CBs have really had a great process for doing that. If this passes, it will really help that.”

Election day is next Tuesday, November 6. The Charter Commission’s three proposals are on the back of the ballot. To find your polling place, visit the NYC Board of Election’s online portal.

Update: An earlier version of this story had the wrong number of community boards in the city.

  • Komanoff

    Sorry to be so negative, but the double pie chart (which I first saw on @StreetsblogNYC) is appallingly bad. Instead of the percentages — which the sizes of the pie slices render superfluous — each slice should be labeled by its ethnic group, and in large type. As shown, the chart doesn’t communicate the message that the boards are far whiter than the borough as a whole.

  • van_vlissingen

    Next time…

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately, I tend to think the age on Community Boards is going to skew older regardless of whether you have term limits or not. Younger people have jobs and other obligations which effectively prevent them from serving on Community Boards.

    Term limits are a good start, but the long-term answer is to just not allow Community Board input on non-local matters, or on matters in which the members lack the proper expertise. It’s one thing to have a debate about whether a corner bodega should get a liquor license, and quite another to start asking for traffic signals, or coming out against bike lanes. The latter are engineering decisions which should be left solely up to DOT. Why not have Community Boards recommend the size and grade of steel I-beams used in buildings while we’re at it? It’s no less dangerous seriously considered their input on street design.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The 51 boards are the lowest, yet in some ways, most important, rung of democracy.”

    They are appointed.

  • Note that the problem of institutional memory doesn’t really apply to the main body of community boards. It is a huge problem, though, if you are terming-out people who are chairs of committees (or who are serving in executive roles) and who are doing the work properly. The people who are both willing, able, and have the integrity to do these roles properly are very, very hard to replace, and affect the functioning of a committee (or of the board) a LOT.

    Yes, they could come back in 2 years and then get immediately reinstated. But nobody is interested in cleaning up the shit if something goes to hell because of this. That makes this very much another “community vs. activists” kind of battle that we don’t need to have. You need to help nourish the institutions we have, too.

  • Joe R.

    The same lines of thought can apply to some elected officials. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. I think the problem here is the fact that Community Boards are appointed. If they were elected, you can easily get rid of problematic members without term limits. I can’t imagine a majority of people would vote for a member who consistently prioritized parking over street safety, for example.

  • Simon Phearson

    Build an institution predicated on lifelong incumbency, it comes to depend on lifelong incumbency. Build it so that it includes some healthy turnover and refreshment, and it adapts.

    Community boards may have to evolve in order to accommodate the greenness of new appointees, but this isn’t exactly a novel issue in the governance world. Plenty of ways to address it. Most institutions understand that fresh viewpoints are what keeps governing bodies vital and important.

  • I think it isn’t said enough: if the Borough Presidents already tend to pick people with narrow worldviews who don’t represent their community… this isn’t going to make them run out of those kind of people to appoint!

    The boards will continue to look like the kind of people that the BPs and the Council Members recommend, and their average time of service will be less but all of them will still be older land-owning car-driving residents. People should want to fix that, and they should do something that is not so hopelessly doomed to miss the goal.

    If I was NOT on a community board and I didn’t like them, I would be mad that this prop was such a waste of time.

    But if you vote for it and then allow things to play out without any further input or support for the boards, then it’s even worse. It’s basically a purge with no concern for the repercussions.

  • Simon Phearson

    Awful rich that the Beeps are worried that noobs on the CBs would be unduly influenced by real estate developers. And Beeps aren’t…?

  • I have more of a problem that nobody is addressing the “adaptation” part. It’s gonna solve itself, right? No. The boards will struggle with the fallout and there’s no sign of help from anyone. Boards will very likely still be the activists’ punching bags.

    If you want to abolish or cripple the boards, that’s your prerogative. But none of this, on its own, represents anything that is going to help the boards, and if you vote yes then you have to own that.

    Wait until you see who the BPs have lined up to replace the current CB members… spoiler alert, it’s not all “concerned community activists of diverse backgrounds” it’s a bunch of swamp monsters from politically-connected orgs. So dealing with that is way more important than any way you vote next week.

  • (sorry to blitz you) They’re already appointing such people. But it’s not “pro-real-estate-developer” people, it’s construction industry folk who donate lots to the council members & who like the idea of having more business. The rationale is different but the result is the same.

  • Joe R.

    I’m not arguing that term limits are at best a band-aid with a questionable chance of fixing things. The real problem is that we appoint, not elect, members. This is both good and bad. It’s bad for the reasons you mentioned. It’s good in that you might appoint qualified people who otherwise might never be on a Community Board because they lack the expertise, money, and personality to campaign during an election. In fact, the people who are best at actually running things also tend to be people who would actively hate the entire election process. I know I couldn’t get elected even to dog catcher. I’m not a sociable kind of person who would enjoy the campaign trail. I’ve even been called things like “Mr. Spock” by people who know me. And I would tell the truth, which would probably piss off enough people in high places to doom my chances of ever getting elected. But if in a position where I ran things in my areas of expertise, I’m sure I could do a good job. But right now taking care of my mother and having work obligations I have no interest or time to get involved much more than I already am (i.e. mostly posting on message boards).

    Just curious, but how exactly does one even get on a Community Board? Is a prerequisite kissing the behinds of politicians for years, or do they actually consider people who come highly recommended by non-politicians? From where I stand, it seems like it’s mostly if you know the right people, you have a much better chance.

  • There’s more thoughtfulness about the design and implementation of community boards than went into the entire process of designing this wet-paper-bag proposition, LOL

    Please contribute to your board! Small but great ways:
    * Attend any committee or full board meeting in your district that you can. Even if just occasionally, or just once/twice a year. You don’t have to go to all of them, that’s crazy! If you can introduce yourself to the chair afterward and thank them for volunteering (with the idea that any polite response is a plus) that is a really nice thing. You don’t have to like what they think, but they ARE volunteering and for something that has zero direct personal reward.
    * If you see something that requires city attention, such as a dumpster out-of-place or a broken bus stop or anything that’s awry, you can call the board’s district manager or write them an email/letter about it. Be kind! Frame it as “just trying to help, I saw something” instead of being one of the foaming-at-the-mouth residents whose lives were ruined by a puke puddle down the block. District managers come to all the full board meetings, btw, and are in the office every weekday. It’s good to know who they are and to have them put a face to your name!
    * Your board has a website. At least know where they meet and when, and what’s on the agenda, even if you don’t go. Read the minutes that are posted, or request the minutes (usually approved a month after the meeting in question, because that’s how “minutes” work unfortunately). Some boards have livestreams of meetings.
    * Apply to be a public member, which some boards have. They sit on one committee (but not the full board) and only have to go to one meeting a month. Sometimes this opportunity has a waiting list for one committee… but lots of openings in another.
    * Tell someone you know who is bright and energetic and kind to consider applying for a CB.

    (And I will try to think of more ways, but that’s a general start)

    How do you apply for a CB? Through the Borough President of your borough. Different in every borough, including the timing of the process, but it’s once a year (25 members are reappointed each year for 2 year cycles, and 50 members total are seated). In Manhattan, board spots are rare but so are focused applicants. As a rule, I have seen most people apply to the boards twice, get rejected at least once (I got rejected twice), and get on the second year they apply either during the main selections of board members, or mid-year from a shortlist of potential applicants to fill vacancies. Persistence and knowledge of the process counts – many people apply without ever having attended a meeting, so attending ONE meeting is an edge!

  • Joe R.

    Thank you for the lengthy list of suggestions. I’ll start by making myself aware of who is on the local community board and where they have meetings. Also, thank you for serving on your board. It’s nice having someone whose views are more representative of the non-car owning majority.

    I would certainly consider attending any meeting where transportation was on the primary agenda. Right now my three main concerns are as follows, in order of importance:

    1) The poor pavement condition of many local streets due to ongoing utility work and/or general neglect. Doubtless this concern would probably get positive attention as it affects motorists as well.

    2) The proliferation of unnecessary traffic signals in my area over the last 20 years. There is currently no mechanism for asking DOT to remove a traffic signal. I also doubt many members who fought for traffic signals, however misguided this was, would be all that receptive to my requests to remove as many signals as practical. Maybe this concern is better bought up with DOT.

    3) The recent replacement of some of the new LED streetlights with ones which are both dimmer and yellower. This makes it much harder to see street defects. It may have been a contributing factor to a crash I had on October 7 due to cracked concrete at a bus stop. Again, this might best be bought up with DOT. They’re more likely to be versed in the technicalities of color temperature versus visual acuity. This is a concern you might wish to bring up as well. I’m not sure how far along the LED streetlight installation is in Manhattan, but I do know the city is thinking of using the yellow 3000K ones instead of the whiter 4100K ones for the remainder of the installation. This is a horrible idea on many levels. If they hear the reasons why, they might change their mind (and also revert the 3000K lights back to 4100K).

    I would also like to see more bike infrastructure installed, but frankly it’s hard to see where the room would exist for it on main arteries like Union Turnpike where it’s needed the most.

  • Our board in Manhattan puts in budget requests every year for more paving work AND more street painting work. Your board should be asking for it as well. It’s a citywide issue, though DOT has made strides in some aspects of street repair in the last 5 years. (Painting isn’t one of them)

    You should write to your CB district manager, board chair, and Transpo committee chair about the traffic lights. You should also write to DOT. In short, this is mainly due to design guides that DOT uses, but it’s absolutely insane that NYC has traffic signals every 230 ft (with wonky timing) in all directions – I have thought about this quite a bit! Force others to think about it too.

    Do the same about the LED streetlights. Very fixable. We need citywide pressure. Heard something like it last year.

    There’s a group that is trying to advocate bike lanes on UT in eastern Queens, ask the TransAlt Queens Activist Committee about that (transalt.org) – there is plenty of room for more & the issue is always the politics of driving and traffic jams. Rarely does the addition of a bike lane to an arterial street make a material difference in traffic speeds – DOT did an analysis for every avenue where they put a bike lane in Manhattan and the selling points every time (for 5 years, in presentations to any/all boards) included “we did a simulation and you will see no noticeable differences in traffic speeds with this plan” indicating that this was a prerequisite for each installation BEFORE we ever got a chance to see the plan.

  • Daphna

    Actually in Harlem the community boards are more African-American that the community they represent. There should be more racial diversity on the community board to include white, Asian and Latino to be more representative of the current demographics of the community.

  • van_vlissingen

    Prop 3 will implement Term Limits & Require Reporting. Reporting often gets forgotten in discussions about Prop 3 but telling forcing Beeps to tell constituents that Community Boards exist and that they need more people from xyz community is a good thing. Dem clubs are not as strong in some parts of the city, and I’d suspect those neighborhoods are the ones where CBs will start to be more independent the quickest.

  • Michael D. D. White

    Here is more perspective including three alternative views and supporting analysis:

    Noticing New York: How To Vote On The Three City Charter Reform (Reform?- Really?) Proposals on The November 6, 2018 Ballot! (NO, NO. . . & MAYBE. .?), Saturday, November 3, 2018.