Volume 77 / Number 40 - March 5 - 11, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Progress Report
A Special Villager Supplement

Community Board

Community Board 2 turnaround; From divisiveness to decisiveness

By Brad Hoylman 

Not so long ago, mention to a neighbor that you were a member of the community board, and you might elicit a groan, a roll of the eyes or both. The popular perception of community boards was that they were insular, out-of-touch, minor fiefdoms controlled by a small handful.

The Rodney Dangerfield-like lack of respect was unfair: The vast majority of community board members are committed grassroots activists who clock in long hours with little recognition and no compensation. But it can’t be denied that on Board 2 alone there were several confirmed instances of conflicts of interest, puzzling votes against the community’s interest — particularly on liquor license applications — and internal discord so bitter that some members rarely talked to each other.

This reputation for dysfunction became a serious sproblem because of the unique role the boards play in local government. Community boards are advisory bodies. While city agencies and elected officials are mandated by the City Charter in some instances to listen to boards, the boards don’t have any formal powers. Thus, as the credibility of community boards declined, so did their ability to influence local issues. 

Enter Borough President Scott Stringer. Because the community board system is one of the borough president’s most significant areas of responsibility, Stringer’s election in 2005 did more than any single factor to help revive and restore the reputation of Manhattan’s 12 community boards. Stringer rationalized the selection process by using independent screening panels, beefed up critical staff support and spearheaded policy initiatives on issues ranging from mass transit to school overcrowding, helping to make our boards relevant again.

On Community Board 2, we’ve embraced the borough president’s spirit of reform with our own innovations.

C.B. 2 has taken a leadership role on a whole range of local issues. We’ve helped build community consensus on Washington Square Park, Pier 40, West Village rezoning, St. Vincent’s Hospital’s rebuilding plans and the need for new schools in our neighborhood. And we’re more responsive to local concerns. For instance, after we learned that a Las Vegas-based operator had misled the public about its proposal to open a burlesque-style nightclub across the street from a Head Start program, we reversed our decision and the operator pulled out of the project. A noodle shop is taking its place.

C.B. 2 is improving our internal administration and how we interact with the community. We’re renovating our offices for the first time in more than two decades and experimenting with a database to track constituent concerns. We’ve shut down two private C.B. 2 bank accounts that created an appearance of impropriety. Our new Web site (www.cb2manhattan.org) is up and running, and includes comprehensive information on key issues. We’re also relying on e-mail more — cutting our paper mailings to the community by one half and reducing waste. We’ve revamped the process for recruiting new public members for our committees and have instituted an application process for the first time. And we’re meeting with local block associations, precinct community councils and other community groups on an informal basis to exchange information and ideas, restoring a crucial link to the community.

We’ve restructured the board’s committee system. Several committees with low board participation but which address critical community issues — such as L.G.B.T., Homeless, Youth, Environment and Public Health and Safety — were consolidated and are now being led by new chairpersons. We’ve created a new committee to examine the thorny issues of street fairs and film permits — which have been reduced by eight since last year — as well as another new committee specifically focusing on Chinatown, a neighborhood whose concerns have historically been overlooked. C.B. 2 has also recently launched a task force to specifically address tenant and affordable housing issues for the first time on the board.

Board member training is something else new that we’ve initiated. Board 2 held the first community board workshop with the State Liquor Authority on the application process. We also had a special training session on conflicts of interest, which we’ve made mandatory for our members. (Video replays of both of these training sessions are available on our Web site.)

These are only a few examples of the turnaround underway at Community Board 2. The goal is twofold. One, we want to create a better-informed, more collegial body that does a better job representing the public. And two, we want to earn back the community’s trust. Only then can we hope to have an impact on the issues so important to our neighborhoods.

Hoylman is chairperson of Community Board 2, which includes Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Hudson Square and part of Chinatown.

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