OPINION: Term limits for community board members? Some thoughts

April 17, 2014 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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This website recently carried an article by Paula Katinas about a resolution by several City Council members, including several from Brooklyn, proposing sweeping reforms to the process of recruiting and appointing community board members.

The most important reform would be to introduce term limits to the boards, specifically to limit members’ tenure to two five-year terms.

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The arguments for term limits in general would seem to apply to community board members. If the same members are around, year after year, this could lead to favoritism – people using their influence to have their friends appointed – and, in the worst instances, corruption. It might also mean that new ideas would find it hard to get a hearing.

However, it’s not that simple. The issue of term limits in the political arena is more cut-and-dried. There are always many people who want to run for political office for the power, prestige and money involved. When an elected official is “term-limited” out of office, there is no trouble finding new candidates.

But community board members are volunteers, and the position rarely carries any glory or glamour. It’s not always easy to find people to serve on these boards – especially in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where civic involvement in general is low. As far as the possibility of corruption is concerned, the boards’ decisions are usually advisory and they don’t have huge budgets.

I once covered community board meetings on a semi-regular basis for this newspaper  — I usually would cover Community Board 6, while the late Dennis Holt would cover Community Board 2. I also occasionally covered meetings of Board 2 myself, and on rare occasions I covered Board 1 in Greenpoint-Williamsburg. In all these cases, I didn’t see cliques, cronyism or manipulation. I saw hard-working community residents, many of whom had lived in their respective areas for their entire lives, who were sincerely interested in their neighborhoods.

I’m not 100 percent opposed to the idea of term limits for community boards. I agree that the idea deserves consideration. But I would hesitate before making such a move. As far as I am concerned, more study is needed.

Another part of the resolution described by Katinas is a “ban on political appointments; specifically staffers of elected officials and executive board members of a political party.” Banning staffers of elected officials makes sense. You don’t want a board that’s a rubber stamp for the “powers that be.”

But I’m not so sure about banning people who are on the executive board of committee of a political club. I happen to be a member of a political club, and there is quite a bit of disagreement among the club members. The club doesn’t speak only with one voice.

Furthermore, the same sense of civic-mindedness that draws someone to a political club often draws them to community boards or civic organizations. Perhaps, instead, there should be some sort of balance in appointments—if X number of executive members of club A are appointed, then Y number from club B should be appointed, depending on the size of the respective clubs.

There’s one measure in the resolution I do support whole-heartedly. That’s “youth representation by 16- and 17-year olds as public members of youth committees and as full board members.” When I was in high school, I volunteered for a campaign, and some of my fellow youth volunteers were as intelligent and sophisticated as any adult. People used to talk about “student power,” and it’s long overdue.

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