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Common Cause, Citizens Union call for Borough Presidents to follow Stringer's reforms in selecting Community Board members; Markowitz's AY purge cited

Last Monday, 3/3/14, the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing on the makeup of community boards, and good government groups weighed in with reformist recommendations. One suggested that an Atlantic Yards episode should be spur to reforms.

Brian Paul, the Research and Policy Manager for Common Cause/New York recommended best Practices and included a history lesson:
New York's community boards originated in the 1950's as "community planning boards." They were institutionalized in the 1963 charter revision with the intent to increase the role for local communities in the planning process. Their creation was in large part a reaction to the overreaches of urban planning "czar" Robert Moses, who from the 1930's to the 1960's oversaw numerous highway, park, and urban renewal construction plans that often ran roughshod over local neighborhoods. In 1968, Mayor John Lindsay led the passage of Local Law 39 which expanded the function of the community boards . The 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.
The establishment of the community boards represented a triumph for advocates of local democracy and community planning. In the decades since their creation, however, it has become clear that the community boards have not lived up to their intended goals. Barriers to the community boards' mission of empowering local communities and increasing civic participation include lack of adequate resources, an over-politicized appointment process, and a lack of appropriate representational diversity.
With annual budgets of only $200,000 to $300,000 per board, community boards have far fewer staff and resources than other governmental bodies in New York City . The entire budget of all 59 community boards combined amounts to less than 0.02% of the total city budget. Most community boards have no more than two full time staff persons, the District Manager and an administrative assistant, who spend most of their time on administrative tasks and responding to urgent issues. It is abundantly clear that Community Boards have not been provided with the resources needed to adequately fulfill their charter-mandated responsibilities, including their role in the ULURP and annual statement of community district needs. Many community board members and civic governance experts testified to this fact during the 2010 City Charter Commission hearings .
Borough presidents in charge

BPs, Paul said, had too much power:
Community board members are chosen by the Borough Presidents from a pool of applicants. Half of the applicant pool for each community district is nominated by the local City Council Members, but the Borough President has final discretion over the selection of all members. All members serve staggered two-year terms. According to the City's official explanation, qualified board members are selected "from among active, involved people of each community and must reside, work, or have some other significant interest in the community."
This extremely vague description of a board member's qualifications allows the Borough Presidents nearly complete discretion over community board appointments. Each Borough President is free to establish his or her own procedures, and as a result, each of the five boroughs has a different set of rules and procedures for appointing and reappointing members. Briefly reviewing the current application forms of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens reveals wide ranging discrepancies in the level of detail required on important aspects such as the applicant's race/ethnicity, type of housing, motivation behind seeking board appointment, and potential for conflicts of interest. The current Manhattan application is the most detailed at six pages while the Bronx and Brooklyn are four pages each and Queens' application is only one page with no written questions required at all .
Without a standardized citywide process to recruit and appoint a qualified and diverse body of members, New York's community boards can at times degenerate into mere proxies for more powerful governmental actors and special interests, and fail to adequately represent our neighborhoods.
The AY example

He testified:
Recent years have seen at least two examples of Borough Presidents overtly playing politics with community boards by conducting high-profile "purges" of members who dared to vote their conscience. In 2006, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion refused to reappoint the Chair of Bronx Community Board 4 and several other members who voted against the Yankee Stadium redevelopment plan he supported. And in 2007, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz removed five longtime members of Community Board 6 who opposed the Atlantic Yards project. According to one allegedly purged member, Celia Cacace, Markowitz threatened her months in advance of the appointment decision that he was going to "get rid of everyone on the board that voted for this...Remember you are my appointee." Such direct political intimidation and misuse of the powers of appointment to coerce community board members is anathema to the boards' purpose of providing an authentic local community voice in city government.
Getting to a more diverse board

Newer residents are often underrepresented, and thus the boards "do not reflect the district's ethnic, age, and gender diversity and there is an imbalance in representation between tenants and homeowners, car owners and public transit commuters, and other important diversity factors."

Common Cause/New York endorsed the steps taken by then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, now Comptroller, to recruit a more wide-ranging board, to require identification of potential conflicts of interest, and to establish an independent panel to review applications.

It also suggested term-limits for community board members, perhaps five terms of two years each, or for the chair and committee chairs. Noting that some boards have no websites or minimal ones, Common Cause recommends "a centralized website providing information for all of the boards in one location, as well as offering tools like interactive forums, maps, and webcasting."

For example, the "Empower LA" website in Los Angeles acts as the hub for the city's 95 neighborhood councils.

From the Citizens Union

Alex Camarda of the Citizens Union testified, citing the group's 2010 report:
We took positions in the report supporting fixed budgeting for community boards, believing community boards should receive a budget in the aggregate that is 30 percent of the  Council’s budget (or about 65 percent of all the borough presidents’ total funding), with rent, heat,  electricity and other variable expenses part of the regular budget process. We also support  providing urban planners to boards independent of the borough presidents’ offices to provide  assistance on technical land use issues. This will provide community boards with needed resources to ensure they have a distinct voice in the land use approval process.
It recommends a more professionalized, standardized, and transparent process for selection, that borough presidents issue an annual report detailing their outreach efforts, and a limit of five terms.

It helped Stringer create a standardized formal application process, and recommended this. The newly elected borough presidents Gale Brewer (Manhattan), Eric Adams (Brooklyn), James Oddo (Staten Island) and Melinda Katz (Queens), during the campaign, indicated support for at least some of the reforms.

Citizens Union has drafted a bill to reform the process of community board recruitment and appointment consistent with its positions, though it did not include term limits.


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