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Queens Chronicle

Community boards reform; what’s next?

Chairs concerned about dwindling effect, say ‘abilities are threatened’

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Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2019 10:30 am

There are 14 community boards in Queens, with each advising on new proposals involving land use and zoning, budgeting, liquor licenses and other area issues.

But lately many on the boards believe they have been marginalized.

“Community boards are important,” said CB 8 Chairwoman Martha Taylor. “They always have been and they always should be. However, their abilities are threatened at this point.”

One issue is the term limits placed on community board members, which passed last November with 72 percent of the vote. Activists hail it as a major reform, but Taylor called it “an absolute fiasco.”

“Anybody who knows anything about the way community boards operate knows that it’s going to destroy our community boards,” she said.

Taylor asserted that most people didn’t really know what they were voting for, saying, “They just thought change is good.”

She noted that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, in which applications for zoning changes, special permits and several other types of proposals are publicly reviewed, is a major part of the boards’ responsibility.

“ULURP is tricky and it takes a lot of years of learning to understand it and then relate it to the generation of people who aren’t familiar with it yet,” Taylor said. “So when you have all new people who don’t really understand it, they’re not going to know how to vote or what to do. They really won’t.”

She added, “I can see the end of community boards or any kind of real community board involvement.”

That’s a far cry from 1986, when The New York Times wrote a story titled “Community Boards Gaining in Power.”

In the piece, Manhattan Borough President and future Mayor David Dinkins said, “I always look to the community boards. The community boards are important in that they are in some degree a barometer on the attitude of the community.”

Last June, Community Board 2 voted 27-8 in opposition of protected bike lanes along Skillman and 43rd avenues after the issue had been brought to the board in November 2017. However, Mayor de Blasio gave the Department of Transportation the order to proceed.

CB 2 Chairwoman Denise Keehan-Smith said the board’s vote being shrugged off is “disconcerting.”

She said she believes the term limits are a sign that members are not being appreciated though she did acknowledge the boards are advisory and don’t dictate policy.

“But oftentimes our opinion was seriously considered before any decisions were made and I truly believe that has now been diminished because of the limitations and the board term limits,” Keehan-Smith said.

She said the knowledge from longstanding board members, such as Lisa Ann Deller who has chaired CB 2’s Land Use Committee for over a decade, is “immeasurable” and that while residents appreciate the efforts of the board, the same cannot be said for the city.

“I don’t think the city realizes or appreciates the level of knowledge that some of these board members possess and how they can easily navigate through the ULURP process and [are] working with developers and coming in and asking ‘what’s the expectation and what can you give back to the community?’”

Why the cold shoulder toward the boards? CB 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton also believes voters didn’t fully understand the ramifications when they overwhelmingly favored term limits.

“They are taking a wealth of knowledge and skill and basically saying, ‘OK, goodbye,’” she said.

The term limit requires board members to take a two-year break after eight years of service but they will be allowed to reapply.

“I find that very odd ... is that term limits? I don’t know,” said CB 4 Chairman Louis Walker. “It’s a very strange term limit. They better hope those [two years] they don’t have an empty room that they can’t fill.”

Community Board 7 member John Choe, who was in favor of the term limits, said, after the measure was approved, he tried to raise awareness and told people in the community to apply. He added that he’s looking forward to a report from the Borough President’s Office on the process and the demographic data.

Choe said he was unhappy with CB 7 members for saying they would not vote for a bike lane on a street where they live during a recent Department of Transportation presentation.

“That type of NIMBYism ... it goes back to that Archie Bunker mentality of ‘We don’t want change in our neighborhoods.’ It just gives people outside of the community board a bad impression about the people serving on it,” he said. “I personally don’t want to be associated with those type of comments.”

Peter Beadle of Community Board 6 also advocated for term limits.

“I didn’t push term limits because I thought that community boards are a bad thing,” he said. “I pushed and advocated for term limits because I think that the potential of community boards as what should be the most accessible part of our democracy isn’t being realized.”

Beadle said the same people are entrenched for a long time and that there needs to be an opening for new ideas. He said CB 6 consists of dedicated people but he would like to see the board become more transparent and use social media.

“The times have changed and we need to change with them,” Beadle said.

He said that the boards need to be open to tweaks to realize their full potential.

“I really am a believer in community boards as being the opportunity for ordinary people to both have the ability to force the city agencies to come and tell them what’s going on and also to provide their input,” Beadle said.

Community boards originated in Manhattan in 1951 when Borough President Robert Wagner established 12 community planning councils and the other borough presidents created similar groups. In the 1960s, the city was divided into 62 community districts. A few years later, Local Law 39 expanded the powers of community planning boards, requiring that city departments refer all matters requiring public hearings to them and note their recommendations.

In 1975, the new City Charter divided the city into 59 community districts and gave the boards official status in government by including a provision for ULURP, giving the communities input on potential developments in neighborhoods.

Some of these board problems are not new, however. In 1987, The New York Times wrote “Community Boards Are Feeling Unloved and Powerless,” just one year after its piece on how boards were gaining power.

The story noted how boards unsuccessfully opposed a number of developments, including two office and condominium high rises on Columbus Circle, apartment and dormitory towers at Lincoln Center, an expansion of Battery Park City and the first municipal shelter for the homeless on Staten Island.

Mayor Ed Koch did not want to expand the power of the boards.

“I believe that having their input has improved many projects,” he said. “But I believe if you gave them a veto position, nothing would be built in this town above three stories.”

Choe told the Chronicle, “I actually believe that if we do have better run community boards that are more representative of communities, they should be given more power to actually have a larger say in the way we make decisions. But at this point, in terms of who we have on Community Board 7, for example, I wouldn’t give CB 7 any more power beyond what’s advisory.”

Earlier this month, CB 9 voted 34-0 against the mayor’s plan to build a then-30-story jail in Kew Gardens. But Sylvia Hack, co-chairwoman of the board’s Land Use Committee, said, “I don’t think it will accomplish much.”

Members of the community boards do not receive salaries, one reason Braton does not like the term limits.

“It would be one thing if they were paying people a salary to do this and they changed it,” she said. “But they’re saying to volunteers, ‘OK, bye.’”

Frank Gulluscio, district manager of CB 6, believes the boards are appreciated by the city.

He pointed to the announcement last June that each board is receiving about $40,000 more in funding for the new fiscal year.

And he noted that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) has experience with community boards as does Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), who helped get the boards the additional money.

“This year we feel appreciated,” Gulluscio said. “Past years? No.”

Gulluscio has been involved with community boards for about 30 years and says the concerns are nothing new.

“From Giuliani to Bloomberg, we always were on guard that they might do away with us but then they would have to change the City Charter,” he said.

Before being elected mayor, Giuliani was a federal prosecutor and Bloomberg a billionaire businessman. But de Blasio had more of a civic background, serving on a school board and then as city councilman, which was followed by his election to public advocate.

“Considering he was a community guy when he started out, you’d think he would appreciate the community boards a little bit better,” Gulluscio said.

He said the boards are the voice of the residents and that there is a lot of history involved.

“I can go back to my files and tell you what Joe Blow said in 1970-something about the mall in Rego Park,” Gulluscio said. “We have those kinds of records.”

He added that even politicians don’t have records like that. And, after all, the boards have outlasted each legislator.

“They’re good people,” Gulluscio said. “They’re civic people. Yeah, they might be a little on the old side but there’s so much institutional knowledge in a community board that you can’t buy it anywhere. Electeds come and go.”

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1 comment:

  • LIONELQDEVERAUX posted at 9:24 am on Mon, Apr 15, 2019.

    LIONELQDEVERAUX Posts: 1

    As they stand now, community boards are useless. Honestly, what purpose do they serve besides giving people with spare time on their hands something to do. Case in point, CB2 took up bike lanes on Skillman Avenue, and decided they were not needed nor wanted. DeBlasio said screw you, I'm putting them in. Our esteemed councilman who was against them promptly flip-flopped and agreed with DeBlasio. Originally, I had thought that the community board was a way for the community to weigh in as to policies that would affect the community. If that is not the case and politicians like VanBramer and DeBlasio do not care about what the community thinks. why are there community boards in the first place?