OPINION: Protect community boards from establishment-ization
Vote “No” on Proposals 2 and 3
Civic life is one of our city’s greatest assets. By and large, New Yorkers care about their neighborhoods and many devote energy to participating in their community, whether through their civic associations, non-profits, churches, synagogues or mosques. Our neighborhood planning boards (community boards) play a key role in connecting the fabric of our neighborhoods and their residents to the city’s processes. Nevertheless, too few people know about them or participate. The answer to a lack of public participation is to encourage more participation. The key is to encourage and support, not supplant. Unfortunately, two of the charter revision questions on the November 6th ballot are dressed up to look like support, but in reality, supplant the public’s participation.
These proposals would substantially alter the way the city’s 59 local community boards function, by term-limiting their members (Proposal 3) and changing who supplies them with the resources, assistance and training needed to perform their functions (Proposal 2). The proposals are intertwined so that the discussion feels circular, and indeed that seems to be the intent. Both proposals spring from a false assumption and hinge on each other.
Let’s start with Proposal 3, as it is the linchpin of the city’s approach. Proposal 3 seeks to establish eight-year term limits (four terms of two years each) for the 50 volunteers appointed to each community board. Good community board members are hard to find. These members are appointed by the borough presidents and proportionally by the City Council members from the districts that comprise the community board’s catchment area.
Term limits would eliminate experienced volunteer members who are critical to their decision-making. Community boards are the first line of defense for our neighborhoods. We should certainly encourage new members and cherish their fresh perspectives, along with experienced members. Without experienced members with institutional memories who understand city land use, transportation, licensing and environmental processes, our neighborhoods will be vulnerable to city and developer generated proposals that need serious work before they should pass muster. The City Council members and borough presidents reappoint members every two years. If someone is not contributing well on a board, the appointing official can simply not reappoint them.
Proposal 2 seeks to establish a “Civic Engagement Commission,” in which the Mayor would retain control of the commission and its activities through his or her powers of appointment. One task of the new commission would be to institute city-wide participatory budgeting — a great idea.
But here’s where the proposal goes awry: the commission would perform other tasks that would actually centralize power in the commission, thereby taking it away from the community. For example, it would supply “resources, assistance and training” to community boards. That assistance has traditionally been provided by the borough presidents. It is true that community boards need more resources such as professional planners, and budgets that reflect the realities of serving our neighborhoods today. However, that’s not what this proposal does. Even more insidiously, Proposal 2 would permit the Mayor to assign “powers and duties of other city agencies to the commission.” In other words, the commission would control the engagement of agencies without their subject-specific expertise. Our community boards are Davids, and we need them to stand up for us to the Goliaths.
Historically, New York City administrations have done a poor job of engaging with communities — witness the lack of engagement surrounding the borough-based jail proposal to close Rikers Island. Creating a centralized commission stacked with mayoral appointees to whom the powers and duties of city agencies could be assigned at the behest of a mayor will surely establishment-ize what should be grassroots civic involvement.
I support Proposal 1 as written.
— Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon represents the 52nd District of the New York State Assembly, which includes parts of Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Boerum Hill and DUMBO.
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