Testimony to the New York City Charter Revision Commission
Community Boards and Land Use
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Council Member Ben Kallos
New York City's Community Boards originated in the 1950s, when Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner established twelve “Community Planning Councils,” each comprised of 15-20 members. The councils served an advisory role to the Borough President, primarily for planning and budgetary issues. As mayor, Wagner institutionalized the councils as “Community Planning Boards” in the 1963 Charter Revision, extending them to all five boroughs.
Expanded again in 1968 by Mayor John Lindsay through the passage of Local Law 39, Community Boards acquired their present structure in the Charter Revision of 1975, which established the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and expanded the number of boards to the present 59. Additionally, the Charter Revision Commission recommendations gave the Community Boards a formal role in three specific areas: (1) Improving the delivery of city services; (2) Planning and reviewing land use in the community; and (3) Making recommendations on the city's budget.
Currently, each Community Board consists of up to 50 volunteer members appointed by the borough president, with half nominated by the City Council members representing that district. Board members are Charter mandated to reside, work in, or have some other significant interest in the community. As the most local form of government, Community Boards serve an essential role in our city’s democracy by shaping neighborhood development and advising government on community needs and interests.
Opportunity for Reform
On March 3, 2014 I chaired a hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations on “Best Practices for Recruitment and Appointments to Community Boards.” The hearing received 19 testimonies from individuals, organizations, and borough presidents past and present. There was a strong desire for reform to strengthen Community Boards with greater resources and standardize processes so that each Borough President and Community Board could draw upon which practices worked best to improve recruitment and maintain vibrant, functional boards.
Community Boards are the most local form of government for residents of New York City. They serve an essential role in our city’s democracy by shaping neighborhood development and advising government on community needs and interests. Community Boards were created and amended by Charter Revision Commissions and this commission should continue the work of its predecessors by increasing representation and outreach, standardizing best practices, and removing politics and conflicts of interest from the appointments process. Furthermore, the Commission should strengthen our Community Boards by giving each greater power in the land use process.
Summary of Recommendations:
1. Outreach and Recruitment
A Community Board is only as strong as its members, and membership can only be as strong as the application pool from which members are selected. Improving outreach and recruitment will ensure that, like New York City’s neighborhoods, each Community Board has a diverse group of members with unique perspectives working together. Borough presidents have begun recruiting widely and inclusively through such methods as online applications and the consideration of their boards’ overall diversity. To better equip a Community Board to effectively serve its community as a whole, increased and more inclusive outreach is needed.
A. Getting the Word Out
Community Nomination - Borough presidents and council members should solicit nominations from Community Boards, civic groups, community groups, and neighborhood associations.
Announce Vacancies - Each board should, on its own or in conjunction with the borough president, conduct a series of public information sessions to inform the neighborhoods they serve about the role of Community Boards as well as opportunities for participation. Utilize press releases, email blasts, fliers, posters, websites, social media, as well as television news and call-in shows to announce vacancies.
Public Members - Create an extensive public membership to build a pool of experienced and qualified applicants.
Community Outreach - Request that applications be shared with members of churches, the veteran community, community-based organizations, housing and neighborhood associations, labor unions, the business community, as well as the disabled and LGBTQ communities.
Recruitment Plans - Build individualized recruitment plans developed among borough presidents, Community Board chairs, and city council members.
Diverse Backgrounds - Efforts should be made to recruit applicants from professions and backgrounds that are helpful to Community Boards, including attorneys, urban planners, small business owners, union members, engineers, architects, students, and teachers. Outreach to colleges and universities seeking students who, because of their academic studies, would make excellent candidates for the board.
Interpersonal Skills - Recruit individuals with strong interpersonal skills who perform well in group settings as well as those with exceptional writing talents since Community Boards operate by committee and communicate through resolutions, testimony, and other written documents.
C. All Segments of the Community and Geographic Diversity
Citywide Criteria - Establish citywide criteria for the recruitment and appointment of Community Board members which encourages diversity of geography, education level, race, ethnicity, age, gender, time as a member of the community, family status, as well as appropriate representation of members who live in different types of housing (including co-ops, condos, rent-stabilized and controlled stock, Mitchell-Lama buildings, and public housing), as well as those who use different means of transportation and are affiliated with a variety of community institutions and organizations.
D. Youth Representation
Youth Communities - Create youth committees on all Community Boards with a mandate for appointment of 16- and 17-year-olds as full and public members, as is currently permitted by law.
E. Demographic Data
Open Data - Collect and open application data from applicants in order to measure the success of outreach and recruitment so that future efforts can be improved.
Centralized Infrastructure - Create a centralized web infrastructure, offering each Community Board its own fully functional website for free.
2. Standardized Application Process
Every Community Board should benefit from the best application process in New York City. Borough presidents have innovated their applications, but there has been limited sharing of best practices across boroughs. A standardized and transparent selection process for Community Boards, with reporting on best practices to the public and between government agencies is needed. Standardizing online applications and ending the culture of automatic reappointment will encourage stronger performance and better ensure members do not become entrenched in their board’s organizational structure. The recruitment of experts and members from underrepresented communities is vital for a fully represented board.
A. Standard Online Applications
Standard Application - Establish a uniform, comprehensive application for all five boroughs which includes written questions requiring those seeking appointment and reappointment to explain their motivations for joining or remaining on a Community Board.
Online Applications - Digitize the Community Board application so it is available to be completed and submitted online.
B. Requiring Reappointment Applications
Universal Application Requirement - End automatic reappointment by requiring written applications from those who have previously served on the board with consideration given to attendance, service, and participation.
Application Records - Require written applications of all appointees and re-appointees by the borough presidents.
C. Filling Interim Vacancies
Timeline for Filling Vacancies - Ending the filling of vacancies by borough presidents at politically convenient times by requiring appointments to mid-term vacancies within 30 days of vacancy.
D. Independent Screening Panel
Independent Candidate Screening - Create a formal, standard, and fair application process that includes an independent screening panel that reviews all applications before the borough president for consideration.
E. Engaging Those Who Do Not Receive Appointments
Continued Engagement - Avoid the disappointment and missed opportunity inherent in the non-appointment letter by proposing applicants seek appointments to local boards, improvement districts, council as well as Community Board public membership.
3. Restoring the Public Trust
Vibrant boards must represent communities instead of political parties, elected officials, or those with financial interests before the board. To that end, members of the executive boards of political parties and the staff of elected officials must be prohibited from serving on the boards, where their influence would distract from the boards’ mission. Additionally, applications must seek information on applicants’ potential conflicts of interests. Accomplishing all of these tasks requires what the voters of New York have repeatedly said they prefer from their elected representatives: term limits. Term limits for city government has served its resident swell by ensuring regular turn over in decision makers and providing greater opportunities for more residents to serve their communities.
A. Conflicts of Interest
Conflict Questionnaires - Require conflict of interest questions to be included in all applications and re-applications to ensure impartiality and transparency.
B. Ban on Appointment of Political Leaders
De-politicization - Ban appointment to Community Boards of individuals who serve as executive committee members of political parties or who are on the staffs of elected officials.
C. Mandatory Reporting
Annual Reports - Require the borough presidents to issue an annual report detailing their outreach efforts and how they advertise and make appointments.
D. Term Limits
No Lifetime Members - Establish term limits of five (5) consecutive two (2) year terms which would be phased in and staggered to prevent a mass exodus of institutional knowledge.
Leadership Term Limits - Establish a uniform term limits for board members serving as chair.
4. Greater Community Input and Power During the Land Use Process
On November 4, 1975, voters approved changes to the City Charter requiring “applications by any person or agency respecting the use, development, or improvement of real property subject to city regulation shall be reviewed pursuant to a uniform review procedure.” Following Department of City planning certification, the affected Community Board has 60 days to notify the public, hold a hearing, and submit recommendations to the City Planning Commission and borough president. However, the recommendations are not binding and too easily ignored by decision makers. The City should empower its most local form of government to have a greater role in reviewing significant land use changes to their neighborhoods. This means requiring community-driven land use plans like 197-a to be taken seriously. Going further, Community Boards should be empowered to, jointly with their council member(s) and/or borough president, initiate a ULURP.
A. Office of Community Planning
Community-based Planning - Establish an Office of Community Planning to provide technical expertise, resources and guidance to Community Boards and neighborhood organizations to encourage greater involvement in often-complicated land use decisions
B. Binding Decisions
197-a Plans – To create a 197-a plan requires intense dedication over many years and comes at considerable cost. When completed, the City should recognize these efforts by Community Boards to improve their neighborhoods by adopting the plans and taking measurable steps to act on them.
Initiating Land Use Matters - Allow Community Boards to, jointly with borough presidents and council member(s), initiate a land use action like a rezoning or ULURP. Once an item like a rezoning is proposed, the Department of City Planning should dedicate urban planners to the project to produce the EIS and other materials and, within six months, respond with all pre-application materials.
Veto Power - A combined “no” vote by a Community Board, Borough Board, and Borough President should have a binding effect and stop a project from moving forward.
For residents looking to express their concerns, become involved in local government, or receive support from their neighbors, Community Boards can be an ideal space—but only if we ensure that they are safe, open, and inclusive. Truly valuing the knowledge, expertise, and eagerness to contribute to their neighborhoods also means we must entrust within them greater power over land use matters so the residents of those neighborhoods have a real say in the future of the places they live, work, and love.