What Does a Borough President Do, Anyway?

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams adjusts the mic at a hearing. Photo by Barbara Eldredge

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    More powerful than an average citizen and more fun than being mayor, the role of borough president is influential in determining land use, allocating money, and serving as a brand ambassador for his or her borough.

    Borough presidents are unique to New York City. Their roles were created by the 1898 charter that brought together all five boroughs as the city of New York. Before then, the boroughs were independent cities with their own mayors.

    Over the years, the responsibilities of the five borough presidents have evolved. They once had more say in the budget process, serving on the city’s powerful Board of Estimate. But after the Supreme Court decided the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional (populous Brooklyn had the same voting power as less-populous Staten Island), borough presidents lost the ability to vote on city-wide budgets.

    Borough President

    Three most recent Brooklyn beeps. Photo of Howard Golden by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikipedia. Photo of Marty Markowitz by David Shankbone via Wikipedia. Photo of Eric Adams via Twitter

    So what does a borough president do? Here are the five key things you need to know about the role of BP today:

    1. They influence land use in their borough.
    Real estate is — of course — an eternally hot topic in this ever-changing city. The borough president has a voice in New York’s all-important Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. A Beep’s vote isn’t binding, but it carries a lot of weight and can influence the official decision of the City Council. Borough presidents can also hold public hearings on development and land use issues, offering a valuable platform for community members to express concerns.

    2. They appoint community board members.
    Community boards are the most local form of government in New York City. Each one is made of 50 voluntary members tasked with addressing local complaints, zoning and land-use issues, and making recommendations for the city’s budget process. How do you get on a community board? You’re selected by the Beep.

    3. They distribute millions of dollars.
    Borough presidents have the power to hand out millions of dollars in funding — roughly 5 percent of the city’s annual discretionary capital budget — to organizations and causes in his or her borough. Parks, education programs, historic landmarks, and more can get some much-needed financial support from the discretionary spending of the borough president’s office.

    4. They serve as ceremonial officiants and figure heads.
    In addition to monetary assistance, a borough president can lend greater visibility to community issues simply by voicing their support or participating in a local event. Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was famously a brand ambassador for the borough, helping to raise Brooklyn’s profile on the international stage.

    5. They advocate for the borough’s interests to city agencies.
    The borough president represents their borough’s interests in the municipal budget process and to other city groups. Each beep has a direct line of communication with the mayor — a great way to lobby for support of particular initiatives or interests.

    Borough President

    Brooklyn’s first borough president, Edward M. Grout. Photo via NYPL

    A timeline of Brooklyn’s borough presidents:

    • Edward M. Grout served from 1898–1901
    • J. Edward Swanstrom served from 1902–1903
    • Martin W. Littleton served from 1904–1905
    • Bird S. Coler served from 1906–1909
    • Alfred E. Steers served from 1910–1913
    • Lewis H. Pounds served from 1913–1917
    • Edward J. Riegelmann served from 1918–1924
    • Joseph A. Guider served from 1925–1926
    • James J. Byrne served from 1926–1930
    • Henry Hesterberg served from 1930–1933
    • Raymond V. Ingersoll served from 1934–1940
    • John Cashmore served from 1940–1961
    • John F. Hayes served for 1961
    • Abe Stark served from 1962–1970
    • Sebastian Leone served from 1970–1976
    • Howard Golden served from 1977–2001
    • Marty Markowitz served from 2002–2013
    • Eric Adams served from 2014-present
    Borough president

    Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Photo by Katie Chao and Ben Muessig via Flickr

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