Term Limit Turmoil: CB4 Members Cry Foul, Say it Thwarts Experienced Leadership

Christine Berthet fields changes to CB4’s letter to NYC Charter Revision Commission Chair Cesar Perales. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

BY WINNIE McCROY | Community board members across the city are crying foul over the recent announcement that the mayor’s office is proposing term limits for their volunteer service, to be voted on during the Nov. 6 general election — and they’ve penned a pointed letter to let his office know how they feel.

“MCB4 [Manhattan Community Board 4] strongly believes your ballot proposals relating to the functioning of Community Boards were made without a fundamental understanding of how Community Boards work and will not accomplish the stated goals of the Commission,” they wrote, in their Sept. 6 letter to NYC Charter Revision Commission Chair Cesar Perales. They further noted, “The Mayor’s approach was hasty, requires further vetting, and again may result in unintended consequences that will weaken the community board system and undermine the very goals advanced by the Commission.”

On Sept. 4, after months of public discussions held during the summer (when few community board committees meet), Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Commission voted to approve three ballot questions to be voted on in November. The first question proposes reducing contribution limits for elected officials, and the second question establishes a Civic Engagement Commission to expand access at polling sites. The third establishes term limits on community board members and would “standardize the appointment process to make Boards more representative of their communities. Boards would also receive additional resources, particularly in urban planning.”

Community board members now serve two-year terms. The mayor’s proposal would have members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019 be limited to serving four consecutive two-year terms. Members appointed or reappointed after April 1, 2020 could be reappointed for up to five consecutive two-year terms, to prevent heavy turnover in 2027-2028. Members who have served the maximum number of consecutive terms would not be barred from reappointment after one full term out of office.

Chair Cesar Perales wrote, “This Commission set out to identify proposals designed to improve civic life in New York City and, through an extensive and thoughtful process, that is just what we have done. The proposals approved by the Commission today will provide the voters with an opportunity to weigh in on changes that would impact several important aspects of civic life.”

But those who serve on local community boards are doubtful that the measure will actually improve civic life. In fact, they believe that the mayor’s office has not fully considered the impact this change could effect, and they have drafted a three-page letter to help educate the Commission and the community about the risks.

“We’re telling the Commission that we don’t think they’ve thought about the consequences of this, and we’d really like them to hold off,” said CB4 Chair Burt Lazarin. “In essence, we’re going on record and the thrust of this letter is against these term limits, because it sabotages the creation of institutional memory, skills and knowledge, and prevents any kind of real continuity from old to new people coming onto the Board.”

As an example, CB4 member Betty Mackintosh pointed to the ability to negotiate some of their complex special zoning districts, such as the Special West Chelsea District and the Hudson Yards Special District, saying, “Most of these members were not here in 2005 when these unique zoning regulations were implemented. But CB4 is fortunate to have several long-term members who were there when they were formed, and their knowledge is absolutely essential to the board.”

While Mackintosh understood the need for community boards to be representative of the demographics of their area, she suggested diversity could be improved through outreach to underrepresented groups — and “very meaningful improvements” could include increased funding for additional staff members with urban planning skills, she posited.

Other CB4 members noted that their group already rotates out their top five leadership posts every two years, through December elections of two secretaries, two vice-chairs, and a chair. They argue that these term limits are arbitrary and will negatively impact community governing. Some even suggested the ballot measure infringed upon their civic rights.

“We need to ask someone about this because there should be no city, state or federal law that curtails volunteer participation,” said JD Noland, Chair of CB4’s Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee. “This is almost discriminatory, because it is an attempt to limit participation by citizens in the addressing of grievances by saying we can’t serve. There’s no due process here, and I’d like to reach out to legal counsel about this.”

Community members and CB4 members are concerned over the mayor’s “hasty” decision on term limits. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

CB4 member Christopher LeBron fumed, “This mayor bills himself as a progressive, but this behavior is authoritarian.”

CB4 members are not alone in thinking that curtailing term limits on their voluntary participation is a bad thing. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has already joined borough presidents from the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to co-sign an Aug. 21 letter to Perales, writing to express “serious concerns with the August 14, 2018 Resolution adopted by the New York City Charter Revision Commission.”

That letter notes that the proposals relating to community boards could have unintended negative consequences on community participation and engagement, and urges the mayor that the “hasty adoption of these proposals following an abbreviated Charter Revision Commission process and little to no public review or discussion of draft charter amendments would be reckless and unwise.”

The borough presidents note that particularly regarding land use issues, community board members must develop an expertise that comes from years of experience serving on their boards. Imposing term limits on these members would only benefit real estate developers and their lobbyists and advisors, reads the letter.

“Our Community Boards are an early-warning system and neighborhood advocates on high-stakes real estate matters,”Brewer told Chelsea Now. “It can take years for volunteer board members to build the technical knowledge they need to scrutinize and negotiate zoning and land use proposals from high-powered developers, lobbyists, and City Hall itself. I believe community boards need a mix of newer and more experienced members, and that’s why more than 360 out of Manhattan’s 600 Community Board members are new since I was elected — but we can’t afford to push out every single member after just four terms.”

According to the letter, the borough presidents were in favor of reporting requirements on recruitment and appointment of community board members and implementing consistent guidelines for community board applications, saying that the “additional sunlight on government processes such as appointments to community boards is the most appropriate means of strengthening the process and increasing accountability.”

Although leaders urged the 2018 Commission to reconsider and allow time for public review of the specifics, Bodine noted that on Sept. 4, these proposals were placed on the November general election ballot, where few voters will be privy to what is really at stake.

Still, CB4 members will draft and sign a letter formally registering their opposition to this ballot measure. They argue that they are not anti-democratic, and are not even anti-term limit, as their own leaders work under two-year term limits. But they’re determined to retain the level of expertise that comes with long-term membership.

And some members note that future city leaders often spring from the community board membership. Such is certainly the case with CB4, whose former Chair, Corey Johnson, moved up to City Councilmember and then Speaker of the City Council — something he might never have achieved without the solid foundation he gained at CB4.

Johnson has not publicly weighed in on this aspect of the mayor’s Charter Revision. His Communications Director, Jennifer Fermino, told Chelsea Now that he is undecided on the issue.

It will now go to voters to decide on term limits for community board members via the ballot measure in the Nov. 6 general election.

JD Noland speaks out against the mayor’s proposed term limits. | Photo by Winnie McCroy

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