Should the City’s Community Boards Have More Power?

Community Board 16 hearing on the East New York rezoning. Photo by Hannah Frishberg

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    Protesters at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Wednesday called for the city’s community boards to be given more power, and for board members to be elected rather than appointed.

    But what do you think? Should community boards have more control over their neighborhoods? Less? Or is the system working fine the way it is?

    NYC Community Board Veto Power Controversy

    A Community Board 3 meeting. Photo by Cate Corcoran

    The most local form of government in New York City, community boards were created in 1975 in response to a greater need for neighborhood-level communication between residents and city agencies. Still today, community boards form an advisory bridge between citizens and local elected officials.

    Each board is made of 50 volunteers appointed by the borough president and tasked with addressing local complaints, services, and zoning and land-use issues, in addition to making recommendations for the city’s budget process, among other responsibilities.

    “Community boards are the voice for the people of the city of New York in between elections,” City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Council’s governmental operations committee, told Gotham Gazette. “It is our grassroots democracy and the closest thing we have to a monthly town hall.”

    What the protesters want

    More power to the people. However, these protestors aren’t concerned about all the aspects of community boards — including crime, liquor license applications, street names, bike lanes and more — rather, they are concerned specifically with zoning, development and gentrification.

    Protesters included dozens of members of community groups such as the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network and the Movement to Protect the People. The latter has attracted attention and condemnation from some locals for its disruptive tactics, threats of lawsuits and racially charged accusations, as Brownstoner has reported extensively.

    Community board review is the first stage of the city’s all-important Uniform Land Use Review Procedure — but the board’s vote in this process (and all others) is non-binding. The protesters cited the fact that although more than 80 percent of the city’s community boards voted against the mayor’s rezoning plans, the controversial proposals were still passed by the City Council in March.

    They see this as a sign that the people’s will isn’t being heard by higher-ups.

    They want votes by community boards to be binding rather than advisory. Additionally, the protesters called for community board members to be elected by their districts rather than appointed by the borough president.

    Elections could make board members more accountable to local residents rather than the higher-ups who appoint them, according a masters thesis on community board reform by then-city planning student Stephen Miller.

    What the establishment wants

    For the community board sitch to stay the same. Community boards are first to weigh in on ULURP proposals. In theory, this enables them to inform the City Council’s vote and give elected officials time to negotiate changes and compromises on their behalf. And in the case of the mayor’s rezoning proposals, City Council did broker a compromise before they voted yes.

    As for electing community boards rather than appointing them, some could argue that elected representation in the City Council, borough president, and mayor are already sufficient to provide checks and balances in the process. Elected boards could also create more hyper-local NIMBYism, according to Miller.

    On the topic of elected community boards, Stefan Ringel — communications director for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — told Brownstoner:

    One of a borough president’s most important responsibilities is to appoint qualified candidates to community boards. One of a citizen’s most important responsibilities is to elect qualified candidates to offices such as the borough presidency. Brooklyn Borough Hall will continue to pursue meaningful progressive reforms that will give community boards a stronger and more reflective voice in community matters, but electing community board members would be an abdication of City Charter responsibilities and will not be a consideration going forward.

    NYC Community Board Veto Power Controversy

    A Community Board 15 meeting. Photo by Alex Ellefson via Sheepshead Bites

    Five facts:

    • Community board reform is by no means a new topic. Initiatives from local pols since 2010 have called for a variety of changes, including making the appointment process “more transparent,” and for each board to hire a professional city planner.
    • Legislators have proposed limiting community board members to serving a maximum of 12 years. Right now, there are no term limits.
    • New York City has 59 community boards — 18 of which are in Brooklyn.
    • In 2014, legislation was passed to enable 16- and 17-year-olds to serve on community boards.
    • Before ULURP and community boards were established in 1975, development decisions were made in a sweeping top-down manner characteristic of the Robert Moses era.

    Do you think community boards are working just fine? Or should they have more power? Or less?

    [h/t: Gothamist]

    Related Stories
    Calling All Impassioned Locals: Here’s How to Join Your Community Board
    Community Boards Mostly Reject Mayor’s Zoning for Affordable Housing Plans
    What Is ULURP? And Why Do We Have It?

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