Volume 75, Number 6 | June 29 - July 5, 2005

Stringer report urges reforms on community boards

By Lincoln Anderson

Staking out the boldest position yet on reforming community boards among the current crop of candidates running for Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer recently released a detailed report with analysis and recommendations on how to improve the boards’ functioning.

“I thought it was important,” Stringer told The Villager. “Community activists kept asking me over the past few months, ‘What’s your plan for the community boards?’ I decided to do this report to let people know what kind of borough president I would be with regard to the community boards.”

Stringer said his report was not meant as a critique of the current borough president, C. Virginia Fields, but as a guide to improving the boards.

The 20-page document — described as the product of “exhaustive examination of the powers and flaws of community boards” — is titled “Elevating Citizen Government: A Blueprint To Reform and Empower Manhattan’s Community Boards.”

Among the report’s findings: the $2.6 million in total city funding given to Manhattan’s 12 community boards is distributed inequitably; most boards are not fully appointed with the requisite 50 members; conflicts of interest are going unaddressed; there have been numerous instances of unregistered lobbying and undisclosed lobbying; accountability of staff performance is uneven; and the appointment process of individuals to the boards is “highly politicized.”

Community boards are all-volunteer bodies that weigh in with advisory opinions on a host of issues from liquor licenses to variances for new development projects. The borough president appoints all 50 members of a board, though the local councilmembers recommend half of the appointments to the B.P.

The Upper West Side assemblymember said he felt strongly about “ad-hoc removals” of board members done seemingly without reason. He told The Villager he was familiar with the recent case on Greenwich Village’s Board 2, where Tobi Bergman and Jo Hamilton, two community activists with unblemished records on the board, were recently not reappointed, with no explanation given by Fields.

“The membership appointment process is devoid of evaluative criteria,” the report states. “Most board members are active members of their community, yet politics still plays an important role in their appointment and reappointment, sometimes leading to ad hoc removals and unresponsive decision-making.”

As stated in the report, if elected, Stringer would support legislation forcing chairpersons of the boards and the boards’ individual committees to file financial disclosure reports with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, “enhancing their public accountability as community leaders.”

He also proposes the boards each hire an urban planner to support each board and initiate 197-a rezoning plans. It was not immediately clear, though, how the boards would pay for these planners out of the budget allotted them by the city, of if another staff position at each board would have to be cut to accommodate the planners.

Another recommendation of Stringer’s is to “professionalize the community board staffs.” As B.P., Stringer’s office would provide professional training to board staff members, set minimum performance requirements for each board office and require annual reports, “so every district receives the same equitable treatment and support.”

According to Stringer’s research, unreported lobbying of community boards by professional lobbyists on zoning, development and property issues was not a problem at Greenwich Village’s C.B 2 or the East Village/Lower East Side’s Board 3, but was at Boards 1 in Lower Manhattan and Boards 6 and 8 on the East Side. The law requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports with the city, detailing their lobbying activities.

As for conflicts of interest, the report states “loopholes and lax enforcement open the door to abuse or the appearance thereof.” “For example,” the report states, “the law should, in theory, prevent a bar owner from serving as chairperson of the committee that reviews liquor license applications. This precise conflict occurred on Community Board 2, in an incident that…illustrates the weakness of the city’s conflict of interest laws and the imperative for change.”

As referred to above, the report cites The Villager’s coverage of the conflict of interest of Bob Rinaolo, who owns two liquor-licensed bar/restaurants in the Village, in serving as chairperson of the board’s Business Committee for almost two years, despite a ruling by COIB midway through his tenure that Rinaolo should step down as head of the committee.

The problem is community board members are asked to “self-police” themselves on conflict of interest issues, the report says. “The expectation of self-policing undermines the vital importance of the role played by the community boards,” the report stresses. “This was illustrated, by a recent incident at Community Board 2, which culminated early last year when the chairperson of the board’s Business Committee was forced to step down.”

The report also claims to have uncovered a conflict of interest of a member of C.B. 3, but Stringer and Micah Lasher, a campaign manager, both declined to state who this is on the record for this article.

“I’m going to let the report stand for itself — to not speak about specific individuals,” Stringer said, “but the issues that impact the community boards.”

The report found funding inequity among the Manhattan boards, noting that Board 12, which serves the second-largest population, receives the smallest budget.

In terms of salaries of district managers — the paid staff members who function as ombudsmen, field community complaints and head the boards’ offices — Board 2 (Art Strickler) ranked among the four highest in Manhattan, while Board 3 (Susan Stetzer) was the lowest.

Stringer found that only two Manhattan boards, 1 and 7, were fully appointed at the time of the study.

If elected, Stringer says, according to his report: He would appoint an Independent Panel for Recruitment and Screening to help make community board appointments and increase community awareness of the boards; insist that mandatory attendance guidelines for members at meetings by followed; move to fill community board vacancies within 100 days of assuming office; “end the practice of ad hoc removals” and create a “black-out period for appointments for 90 days prior to elections,” so as not to influence board elections; and require all community board staff to be judged “qualified” by the independent panel.

Although he’s been in Albany for some years now, Stringer does have experience dealing with community boards: He was appointed to the Washington Heights community board when he was only 15, the youngest board member ever in the city.

“Community boards have been in existence since 1951,” Stringer told The Villager. “They serve a very important function — and we should do better to make them transparent. People put in so much time as volunteers — I’m going to work to fight for them for resources.”

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