Volume 75, Number 40 | February 22 -28 2006

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

The borough president unveiled his new reform initiatives at a press conference this month.

Stringer wants reform, new blood on community boards

By Lincoln Anderson

Vowing to make good on his campaign promise of community board reform, Scott Stringer, the new Manhattan borough president, recently unveiled an array of initiatives to improve community board performance, accountability and oversight.

Community boards, which have been around since the 1950s, when they were known as community planning boards, are the “most local unit of local government,” Stringer said. However, he added, “We believe that we haven’t had the oversight and allocation of resources to make them as effective as they can be…. After 50 years, it’s time for a review.”

“We” refers to an independent blue-ribbon panel, the Community Board Reform Committee, Stringer has formed to advise him on community boards and develop criteria and guidelines for board membership. The committee’s members are from 14 good-government and civic groups, such as the New York League of Conservation Voters, NYPIRG, Municipal Art Society, Brennan Center for Justice, Regional Plan Association, the NAACP and the Urban League.

Stringer said that when he was out campaigning last year, Greenwich Village residents expressed especially strong views on the pressing need for community board reform.

“At Abingdon Square, people told me, ‘We want you to play a role in the community board,’ ” Stringer told The Villager. “People said, ‘I’m voting for you on that basis.’ ”

According to Stringer, problems with the community boards have included vacancies left too long unfilled, as well as a highly politicized appointment process and “ad-hoc removals” of board members. Vacancies are a concern because boards need the full complement of members in order to perform at their best, he said, adding that “vacancies can be exploited to affect votes.”

Other problems identified by Stringer include unreported lobbying and lax oversight and enforcement of conflict-of-interest rulings.

All applications — whether for new appointments or reappointments to the boards — initially will be screened by members of the independent reform committee, which will give its recommendations to the borough president. Applicants will then have one-on-one interviews with Stringer’s staff or Stringer himself.

Members will be appointed to community boards based on “merit, not political favors,” Stringer stressed.

The borough president appoints all 50 members of each of Manhattan’s 12 community boards. However, half the members are appointed on the recommendation of the district’s local city councilmembers. Stringer said, although he didn’t force them by any means, the three Downtown councilmembers, Alan Gerson, Rosie Mendez and Christine Quinn, have agreed that their recommended appointees will go through the independent screening panel.

Rules governing conflicts of interest on community boards have too often been “unenforceable and ignored,” Stringer feels. As a result, he plans to ask board chairpersons and chairpersons of “important committees, such as [those dealing with] land-use or sidewalk cafes,” to fill out the so-called “short form” — as opposed to the “long form” politicians fill out — detailing potential conflicts of interest.

“This was born out of The Villager articles,” Stringer noted of his conflict-of-interest initiative. He was referring to the series of articles on the long-unresolved conflict of interest of Bob Rinaolo, who continued to chair the Community Board 2 Business Committee for more than a year and a half after a ruling by the city’s Conflicts of Interest board stating that owners of bars or restaurants cannot chair a committee dealing with liquor-license issues.

“Whoever the appointer is — I think there should have been action [by that person],” Stringer said regarding Rinaolo’s protracted conflict of interest, which the former borough president let slide, allowing Rinaolo to appeal the ruling. “I would have done it differently,” Stringer stated. “We would have done it much more forcefully.”

Of Greenwich Village’s C.B. 2, in general, Stringer said, “We have got to figure out how to stop the infighting and the wasted hours on personalities so we can get back to fighting for the community.”

To insure the boards are filled with the ablest individuals, during the month of February, Stringer is doing an outreach effort to get new people to apply for board membership.

“The first thing we’ve got to do is get new people involved,” he said. “My staff is spreading the word like never before.” His staff has been going to “churches, synagogues and community centers” and making PowerPoint presentations on community boards to encourage new people to apply, he said. He hopes to have “at least three applications for every one open spot.”

The application form for community board membership, which “hadn’t changed for years,” he noted, was redone by the reform committee and is now four pages long, instead of two. Basically, the application asks “why they want to be on the board and what their goals are for the board,” according to Stringer. For those seeking reappointment, “attendance [at board meetings] matters,” he noted. The application is online at www.mbpo.org (click on “Community Board Reform”). Applications must be postmarked by Feb. 28. Stringer guarantees he’ll make all appointments on time — by April 1. (Board members — who are unpaid volunteers — must either live or work in or have educational or otherwise significant interests in the district.)

Board members are appointed to staggered two-year terms, with half of each board up for reappointment each year. Stringer won’t be doing anything right now with the 2007 appointments, but will fill any vacancies among the 2007 membership slots by making one-year appointments.

Stringer noted that there was some talk of term limits for board members under his predecessor, C. Virginia Fields, who ultimately decided against them. Stringer also doesn’t feel term limits are necessary.

“It would be foolish to remove some of our local icons, who are there to teach the next generation,” he said, though adding, “But they need a next generation to teach.”

He pointed to Michael Xu, a Community Board 2 member and New York University student who is on Stringer’s Community Board Reform Committee, as an example of this “next generation of leadership.” “I want to have a teenager on every board,” he said, adding, “Sorry, a lot of us are just too old and we just don’t have it anymore.”

Brad Hoylman, vice chairperson of C.B. 2, is also on the independent panel.

Stringer is initiating a new intern program under which urban-planning students from local colleges will help the community boards on planning issues. In addition, the borough president’s office will work with the boards to enhance their planning expertise.

Asked how much turnover he expects to see on the community boards under his ambitious recruitment effort, Stringer declined to place a percentage on it.

But no one is irremovable, he stressed, noting, “These are not lifetime appointments.”

Asked how he’ll deal with members fighting to keep their power cliques from being dismantled, if it comes to that, Stringer said, “It’s not about cliques, it’s about criteria.”

He said it’s important for the board to have a diverse mix of individuals. For example, he said, there should be members from the arts and education, as well as from business, block association leaders, as well as engineers and architects and residents from a range of housing types, from co-ops and condos to public housing and Mitchell-Lama buildings.

Without knocking Fields, Stringer said, “My sense is we really have some work to do on balance” regarding the boards’ composition.

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