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Ask A Reporter: What Do Community Boards Do?

Upper East Side residents wait to voice their opinions on plans for new cross street bicycle lanes in 2016.
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Upper East Side residents wait to voice their opinions on plans for new cross street bicycle lanes in 2016. Scott Heins/Gothamist

Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city. Do you have a question about how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, city or state? What about voting, the elections or navigating civic life in New York? Ask us! We want to help you get involved by answering your questions.

Q: “What do Community Boards do?”

A: Community boards share the local point of view on new proposals and policies with city officials. That’s really their most important role in civic life. Jeremy Laufer, District Manager of Brooklyn Community Board 7 in Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace put it this way: “Community Boards can amplify the voice of a community.” One city-wide policy solution doesn’t always work for every neighborhood, and community boards ensure that the local experiences of their constituents are a factor in the decision-making process.

There’s no better way to learn what community boards do than to attend a meeting. So I attended the latest meeting of Bronx Community Board 6, which encompasses Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont and West Farms. It ran about three hours.

Board members, public servants and their constituents - about 65 people in total - sat under the flourescent lights of the Saint Barnabas Hospital auditorium amid the rustling of pamphlets and handouts promoting community events ranging from a celebration of Italian-American heritage to screenings for lead poisoning. Board members heard comments from the community, civic leaders and local government employees. The resounding message was this: “Whatever issues you have, we are here to help.”

Community Board meetings can be long and dense, but are often illuminating for constituents. They’re an opportunity to learn how the patchwork of government offices, bureaucratic agencies and essential service providers in the community operate in concert with one another.

It’s a good way to find out what they’re doing to serve you and your neighbors.

“Community boards are the most local form of government,” said John Sanchez, the board’s full-time District Manager. He added that most New Yorkers probably don’t know what community boards do.

“I didn’t know about community boards until I was in college,” Sanchez said. His awakening came in a class at New York University called “The Politics of New York” taught by longtime local newsman, Errol Louis.

So what do community boards do?

Sanchez, who has held his position for two years, says the function of a community board is threefold. “We weigh in on land use decisions, help constituents with their concerns and plan community events.”

The Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit breaks down the duties of community boards this way:

  • Dealing with land use and zoning issues. Community boards have an important advisory role and must be consulted on the placement of most municipal facilities in the community. Applications for a change in or variance from the zoning resolution must come before the board for review, and the board's position is considered in the final determination.
  • Assessing the needs of their own neighborhoods. Community boards assess the needs of their community members and meet with City agencies to make recommendations in the City's budget process.
  • Addressing other community concerns. Any issue that affects part or all of a community, from a traffic problem to deteriorating housing, is a proper concern of community boards.

“Community boards are not powerful,” said Jeremy Laufer, who has been the district manager of his board for 18 years. “We can make recommendations, but none of it is set in stone.”

“We are advisory only. Let me say that again: we are advisory only,” said Terri Cude, Chairperson of Manhattan Community Board 2, which covers a large part of Lower Manhattan.

The boards are made up of a maximum of 50 volunteers, who are appointed by the Borough President and the City Council members representing the district. Anyone 16 and older can seek an appointment to a community board where they live, work or have a significant interest (that’s right, you don’t actually have to live in the community) by picking up an application at that board’s office. District managers and community associates are paid staff of the community board. They plan meetings and organize constituent outreach efforts like block parties, toy giveaways and park cleanups.

Aside from making recommendations on applications for land use re-zoning, boards also weigh in on the the approval of liquor licenses. Still, the bulk of what community boards choose to do is largely up to them, which is to say, it’s largely up to the members of the community who show up to the their meetings.

“Some boards are more active than others,” Laufer said. “It depends on how much additional work the board members want to do.” Sanchez, Laufer and Cude all serve on very active Community Boards.

Boards across the city have offered college scholarships, commissioned studies on early childhood education and secured more social services for the elderly, among other things. Funding for these projects comes from budget requests to city agencies or other relevant public entities.

“The whole idea is community board,” Cude said. “Our recommendations are always based on public input.”

Sanchez said participation from the community is critically important. “All of our meetings are open to the public, whether you’re a board member or not.”

He also said that service on a board, or even just attending a meeting or two, is a good way to get started in local politics.

As it stands, there are no term limits for serving on a community board. “Our oldest community member, Doris, is almost 90, she has 50 years of service and nothing gets past her. She is a land use maven,” Cude said.

But longtime service on community boards might soon be a thing of the past. Next month’s election will see a ballot measure that, if approved, would limit board members’ tenure to four consecutive two-year terms. Four of five borough presidents have said that term limits would make community boards weaker, specifically in matters relating to rezoning, the New York Daily News reported.

In a letter to the Mayor’s Charter Review Commission, the borough presidents—Democrats Gale Brewer of Manhattan, Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx and Melinda Katz of Queens, and Republican James Oddo of Staten Island—warned that term limits would force “a mandatory ‘brain drain’ on our community boards” that could only “weaken their ability to serve as advocates for neighborhood concerns in the development process.” The measure would also require borough presidents to make more diverse appointments to community boards.

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