Board term limits will be ballot battle

What are they so scared of? Doris Diether, 89, of C.B. 2, possibly the city’s longest-serving community board member, wore a Halloween mask and earrings in Washington Square. She opposes board term limits. “It’s silly,” she said. Photo by Jefferson Siegel

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Sat., Nov. 3, 1 p.m: Community board members and local politicians are up in arms over the Nov. 6 ballot proposal for term limits for board members.

Yet the influential organization Transportation Alternatives is among the groups backing the issue, feeling that capping board members’ tenure at eight years is a good idea. Other supporters include the Working Families Party and the SEIU Local 32BJ and UNITE-HERE Local 100 unions, among others.

Meanwhile, for its part, the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, though not supporting term limits outright, is notably urging that the community boards be overhauled — with fewer members per board, longer terms, and for the mayor to be able to make community board appointments, too.

Critics of the proposal blast it as a blatant effort to weaken the — albeit advisory — oversight role of community boards, particularly as a watchdog on real estate development issues. Their fear is that term limits, in general, namely the “throw the bums out” sentiment, automatically appeal to most voters on a kneejerk level.

However, unlike elected politicians, the 50 members on all 12 of Manhattan community boards are all volunteers. They are appointed by the borough president, with half of the appointments first being recommended to the B.P. by local councilmembers.

Three ballot questions

In September, the Mayor’s Charter Commission approved three ballot questions, including reducing the contribution limits for candidates for office who participate in the city’s public-financing program, and also increasing the amount of public matching funds awarded for small donations from $6 for every $1 raised up to $8 for every $1 raised; creating a Civic Engagement Commission to expand participatory budgeting, among other things; and, finally, establishing community board term limits of four consecutive two-year terms, with the goal of making the boards “more representative” of their communities. Term-limited board members would be allowed to reapply to the board after a two-year hiatus.

Adding to opponents’ discomfort, all the commission’s members were appointed by the mayor. A second charter commission — with members appointed by the public advocate, city councilmembers and borough presidents — only recently began its own deliberations, with an eye toward making its recommendations next year.

Downtown Manhattan’s Community Boards 2 and 3 are both on record against term limits for board members, and local politicians, including Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Brad Hoylman, have also been vocal critics of the proposal.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had withheld giving his position on this issue until this Tuesday.

“I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term-limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic-minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

Both Hoylman and Johnson were previously community board chairpersons — Hoylman at the Village’s C.B. 2 and Johnson at Chelsea/Clinton’s C.B. 4 — and community boards are famously a launching pad for political careers.

Not surprisingly, four of the city’s five borough presidents have also penned a joint letter against the proposal. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, however, is for term-limiting board members.

Fear of a ‘brain drain’

Critics of the proposal all cite the “loss of institutional memory” they say removing longtime members would cause. Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said it would lead to a “brain drain” on the boards.

Brewer has noted that, during her tenure, well more than 300 of Manhattan’s 600 community board seats have turned over. She also has pushed for greater youth representation on the boards, appointing members as young as 16 and 17.

“We match appointments to the demographics of the neighborhood, and in my five years as borough president, we have had a 60 percent change in membership through robust outreach, natural turnover and attention to [board members’] attendance,” Brewer said in a statement.

“Community boards are our first line of offense in promoting neighborhood planning and our first line of defense in protecting neighborhoods from developers who seek only maximum profit from their work in our communities,” Brewer added. “Longtime members build up the knowledge and expertise that enable boards to negotiate effectively with very seasoned developers and lobbyists.”

Addressing C.B. 2 recently, Glick slammed the term-limits proposal as “totally and completely annoying and stupid. I’m not in favor of term limits, in general, for elected officials — it’s called ‘elections,’ ” she noted. “Limiting board members’ service is a giveaway to developers. Whether it’s about zoning, on landmarking or traffic issues — it’s a giveaway. It’s shocking and the nerve of the mayor,” she fumed.

“People see term limits and see it as a good thing, when they don’t realize it’s really an attempt to minimize and limit the power of community boards,” said Glick, who is a 28-year incumbent on the state Legislature.

Megatowers and bulldozers threat

In her written statement on the issue, Glick added, in part, “Land use procedures that community boards weigh in on at committee and full board meetings help our beloved historic neighborhoods in Greenwich Village and Tribeca stay alive. Losing informed and knowledgeable members to term limits could allow more megatowers and overdeveloping to bulldoze through communities without detailed questions being asked. This is at a time when small businesses are struggling and vacant storefronts abound at an alarming rate. As the cost of living escalates and community members are increasingly priced out of their homes, losing institutional knowledge on community boards to new members less familiar with the beat of the neighborhood could change the very nature of the city, on a block-by-block basis.”

For his part, Hoylman said of the ballot initiative, “I think it’s a disastrous proposal. As a former [board] chairperson, I really rely on the community boards, now more than ever. Doris Diether, David Gruber, Tobi Bergman, Shirley Secunda — none of these mainstays of C.B. 2 would be serving under this new regime. And it really puts the board at a disadvantage versus developers. I don’t know — maybe that’s the intention,” Hoylman added, skeptically.

Veteran board members, Hoylman said, “have their fingers on the pulse — they have the institutional knowledge.

“I’m sad that the proposal is on the ballot,” he reflected. “Term limits are very popular with voters.”

The state senator added that, in his view, term limits have not been effective on the City Council.

“At the very least, they’re too short,” he said. “It has made [the Council] staff more powerful.”

At a C.B. 2 meeting in April, residents protested a hotel project next to the historic Merchant’s House Museum on E. Fourth St. Weighing in on land-use issues is one of the community boards’ most important roles. The boards’ resolutions are advisory only, but they influence the actions of local politicians, city agencies and City Hall. And the boards are also often able to negotiate changes to development projects and concessions from developers. Photo by Sydney Pereira

The Mayor’s Charter Commission did hold a series of outreach meetings during the summer on the ballot proposals, but they were not well publicized.

The case for term limits

In an interview, Matt Gewolb, the executive director of the commission, and Jorge Montalvo, a staffer on it, laid out the arguments for community board term limits.

For starters, they noted, term-limited board members would still be able to continue serving on board committees as public members, contributing their expertise and knowledge.

Gewolb said Manhattan’s boards actually are pretty representative of their neighborhoods and are not really a problem.

“It doesn’t work the same in each borough,” he said. “I think Manhattan is a good example. I think there were things put in place by [former B.P.] Scott Stringer — and then Gale Brewer — with a blue-ribbon panel.”

Gewolb was referring to a screening process Stringer instituted to raise the caliber of board appointees. At the time, Stringer credited The Villager for leading the call for community board reform back when the membership of C.B. 2 was deeply divided between residents and business owners. Stringer “cleaned up” the board, so to speak, and the rancor between members is long gone. However, C.B. 2 now is being slammed as “anti-nightlife” by the likes of Allen Roskoff, head of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club; Carter Booth, an anti-bar watchdog and longtime co-chairperson of the board’s State Liquor Authority Committee, appears poised to be elected the board’s next chairperson.

Gewolb and Montalvo said, at outreach meetings over the summer, they heard the most complaints about Queens community boards, in terms of the members being unrepresentative of their communities, demographically speaking.

Both said they would like to see community board hopefuls state their “race, ethnicity and age” on application forms.

“It would be voluntary,” Gewolb noted, adding, “There’s currently a mandate in the charter for borough presidents to provide geographic diversity.”

As for institutional knowledge on boards, Montalvo said it could easily be passed down from veteran members to newer ones.

“It won’t be gathered all in one person, but shared by a board — sort of a ‘hive mind,’” he explained.

Queens’ Katz: ‘Boards are balanced’

Meanwhile, rather than being the poster child for the need for community board reform, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has been doing exactly what the commission wants, a spokesperson said.

“Borough President Katz has deliberately and successfully moved the borough’s 14 community boards toward a healthier balance between the expertise and experience of long-standing members (which is precisely why we should not have term limits for the boards), the fresh ideas and perspectives of brand new members, and more proportional representation among and within the boards,” said Sharon Lee. “Three hundred and 11 individuals have had the opportunity to serve on a community board for the first time, ever, under Borough President Katz’s administration.”

Transportation Alternatives, the high-profile group seemingly driving much of the city’s policy on the use of its streets, is a strong supporter of community board term limits.

Erwin Figueroa, TransAlt’s senior organizer, said the group feels that the transportation committees of too many of the city’s community boards are dominated by car owners. One City Hall source told The Villager that TransAlt specifically wants to purge the boards of older members, feeling they tend to be the most opposed to bike lanes. But Figueroa denied that’s the case.

“It’s not an age issue,” he said. “It’s all across the board.”

However, he added, “Without term limits, we have people that have been on the community boards for decades.”

REBNY wants board reforms

As for the Real Estate Board of New York, it seems to have a more nuanced position, calling for a broader overhaul and reform of the community boards, plus for increasing the mayor’s power on them.

“First, we reject term limits for community board members,” REBNY said in a statement. “The land use process can be complicated, and proper planning takes time. Removing institutional knowledge is not the answer to inertia or to entrenchment. Instead, community boards should reflect the communities they represent. Appointments should not be given out as de facto renewals; instead appointments should be made to correspond to the diversity of their communities’ population. One-quarter of those appointments should be reserved for representation of local business. The mayor should have the ability to appoint members as well who demonstrate an understanding of the city’s needs. Consideration should also be given to reducing the number of members per board and to increasing the length of terms.”

A group called the Democracy Yes Coalition, which supports all three ballot proposals, will hold a rally on Thurs., Nov. 1, at 11 a.m. at 32BJ, at 25 W. 18th St. In addition to TransAlt, other members of the coalition include Korean Americans for Political Advancement, NY Immigration Coalition, Participatory Budgeting Project, Patriotic Millionaires, Reinvent Albany, SEIU Local 32BJ, UNITE-HERE Local 100 and the Working Families Party.

Hard work, but rewarding

Former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer opposes term limits for community board members.

“It’s not easy to be on the board,” she said. “I know — I was an old-time member. It’s a pain in the neck. It’s volunteer.”

Doris Diether, with 52 years on C.B. 2, is one of the longest serving board members in the city, and perhaps the longest. She’s known as the Village board’s “zoning maven.”

“I understand what they’re trying to do,” Diether said. “But it seems silly to put people off the board who are doing a good job. It seems silly to put someone off the board if they’re energetic and they’re interested in it — and they know the area better because they’ve been there longer.”

Diether, 89, said she makes a point of always showing up for meetings, even if she has recently just gotten out of the hospital after a fall, for example.

“They look kind of surprised to see me sometimes showing up!” she said, with a laugh.

This article has been updated to reflect that Council Speaker Corey Johnson has taken a position on ballot proposal No. 3.

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