As part of the city’s ongoing charter revision process, New Yorkers could be asked to vote this year on major changes to rules governing community board membership, including instituting term limits and a uniform citywide appointment process.
The preliminary staff report of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission, released in July, recommends that the 15-member commission consider potentially significant measures that could reshape the local representative bodies.
The city’s 59 community boards, 12 of which represent Manhattan neighborhoods, are the most local manifestation of New York City’s municipal government, responsible for advising elected officials and government agencies on matters of community importance. Each board is composed of up to 50 volunteer members appointed by the borough president, half of whom must be nominated by the City Council member or members representing the district. Members can be reappointed to an unlimited number of two-year terms.
Critics charge that the current appointment system has resulted in boards with little turnover in membership due to repeated reappointments, producing makeup that often lacks ideological and demographic diversity, particularly in neighborhoods that have recently undergone rapid change. Term limits, they claim, would create increased diversity through new appointments.
Ben Kallos, who represents much of the Upper East Side in the City Council, said in recent public testimony that term limits “are necessary to ensure that these bodies reflect their communities and create a culture of getting things done and foster mentoring and the passing on of institutional memory.”
Other have argued that increased turnover would have the opposite effect on institutional memory, unnecessarily robbing boards of experienced and committed members. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer opposes term limits, citing the importance of maintaining experience and expertise among the bodies’ membership. “Members must know about zoning, tax incentives, housing finance, landmarking, and so much more,” Brewer said at a recent public hearing held by the mayoral commission. “This is knowledge that takes full-time students and planners years to develop, and community board members must learn it all as part-time volunteers.” Brewer pointed out that Manhattan community boards have seen nearly 60 percent turnover in membership since she took office in 2014, and said that her office takes performance and attendance into account in evaluating members for reappointment.
Various groups and elected officials have recommended term limits ranging from four to eight years. The mayoral commission, which is holding public hearings, has neither determined whether it will include revisions to term limits among its final ballot proposals, nor indicated the maximum term length it might recommend.
The mayoral commission is expected to issue its findings and detail potential ballot proposals to amend the charter by September. The proposals could be put to voters in November.
The mayoral-appointed commission is one of two panels reviewing the New York City Charter, the municipal government’s organizing document. The City Council voted to convene its own charter revision commission in April shortly after the formation of the mayoral commission was announced. The Council’s commission, which met for the first time in July, has a broad mandate and will examine the Charter in its entirety, while the mayor’s appointees (though they are empowered to review the entire charter) have been charged with a narrower focus on issues of campaign finance, community boards, voter access and districting. The Council’s review has a longer timeframe and would send measures to voters in November 2019.
The timing of the process has frustrated some community board members, who say that the swift period, from the time the preliminary staff report was released in July until the commission’s final recommendations are announced in September, gives community boards — many of which do not meet during the month of August — little time to evaluate and weigh in on proposals that could significantly impact how the boards function.
“We’re a little concerned that this is moving more quickly than maybe it should,” said Anthony Notaro, the chair of Community Board 1, which serves much of Lower Manhattan. “If you’re going to potentially have major changes to the community boards, why not have enough time for the community boards to give input on it in the form of resolutions?” Notaro said.
Notaro explained that while he does not support term limits, the full membership of Community Board 1 has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the idea. Notaro said that members Community Board 1’s executive committee will likely meet in a special session in August to evaluate the commission’s recommendations.
Roberta Semer and Alida Camp, the chairs, respectively, of the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7 and the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8, expressed similar sentiments. CB8 has formed a task force to examine charter revision issues while the full board is in recess during August, and CB7 will likely take similar steps.
In addition to term limits, the commission’s preliminary staff report also recommended that the mayoral commission also explore measures that would create a uniform citywide application process for board membership, which currently varies by borough, and provide boards with additional resources.
Desire for additional land use resources or staff is widespread among community board leaders, who often must rely on outside community organizations to hire professional planners and other experts to evaluate the potential impact and legality of proposed developments.
”We really could use more land use resources,” Semer said. “At Community Board 7 we’re fortunate because we have several members who have knowledge about land use, but issues come up when we really could use additional expertise.”
Camp agreed: “Having a dedicated planner would enable us to better fulfill our advisory role,” she said.
Others have called for the mayoral commission to examine farther-reaching reforms of the community board system than those recommended for consideration in the preliminary staff report. Suggestions include allowing for the direct election of community board members, granting boards increased power in land use matters, and instituting more stringent conflicts of interest rules and restrictions on eligibility to serve.
Kallos, for example, has advocated for giving community boards binding power to initiate or veto certain land use actions in concert with the borough president, borough board and City Council members.
Lynn Ellsworth, the chair of the land use advocacy nonprofit Human-scale NYC, testified in favor of putting community board members on the ballot and barring registered lobbyists and individuals who hold leadership positions in political clubs, business improvement districts and unions from serving on community boards.
Skeptics of electing community board members say that putting members on the ballot and opening the process to campaign funding could allow political clubs, unions and moneyed interests to exert undue influence on the boards.