Voters to decide on community board term limits



View of Hudson Yards construction, one of the projects Community Board 4 must discuss. Photo: Sophia Ahmadi.

The mayoral commission’s official city charter proposals include putting the controversial issue of community board term limits on the November agenda. While the resolution was initially suggested as part of an effort to enhance diversity among the city’s community boards, the decision to include it on the public ballot has drawn criticism from boards across Manhattan – where some members have served for decades – and from the borough president. 

In a letter to the chair of the New York City Charter Revision Commission, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, along with three of the four other borough presidents — Queens, Bronx and Staten Island — expressed concerns regarding the new proposal, which if approved would replace open tenure with a limit of four two-year terms.

Proponents of the proposal have expressed concern over repeated reappointments and board member demographics that do not reflect the communities they serve. A preliminary staff report released by the mayoral commission earlier this summer proposed term limits as a solution – but critics say it would achieve diversity at the expense of needed expertise.

Charged with the appointment of 59 community boards, the borough presidents, excluding Brooklyn, wrote of the “unintended negative consequences on community participation and engagement, especially in the land use context” that the initiative would have. “Forcing a mandatory ‘brain drain’ on our community boards,” they wrote, “can only weaken their ability to serve as advocates for neighborhood concerns.”

Citing both Hudson Park and Hudson Yards development projects, Manhattan Borough President Brewer argued the invaluable nature of a long-term perspective. “When there’s a big development, and everybody wants to build, it’s really important to have somebody on that board who knows what the development is supposed to be and what people have said in the past,” she said in a phone call.

She said that turnover is already an integral part of the process. Manhattan has seen over a 60% change across its 12 boards since she came into office in 2014. Currently, members who wish to extend their tenure on the board are required to fill out a re-application form and are subject to the same process as prospective members, though they are automatically granted interviews. “We try to keep people on if they are doing a good job. I don’t take everybody off, because then we won’t have any institutional memory,” she said.

City Council member Ben Kallos disagrees. Kallos, a proponent of term limits since 2014, has testified at all of the hearings regarding this year’s city charter revision. In a written statement to the commission he said that limits “create a culture of getting things done and foster mentoring and the passing on of institutional memory.” Kallos, like other city council representatives, is partially responsible for nominating half of the community board members within his assigned district (5), though the borough presidents retain final approval of elected members.

The commission’s timing has also sparked criticism. There were only two months to address the concerns regarding the proposal, and most of the boards were absent during the summer.

The proposals were approved despite letters from several boards urging that the ballot language be reconsidered. The public will now decide on election day.

Burt Lazarin, chair of Community Board 4, agrees with Brewer on the need to maintain internal expertise. In a written statement he said that limits “would minimize the institutional knowledge of the boards and therefore weaken the board’s ability (to) effectively plan for their community.” Lazarin, who specializes in land use issues, has been serving on his community board for over 13 years and was appointed chair in 2018. “CB4 leadership will continue to discuss how CB4 can best educate the public on this issue in the upcoming months” he said.

Miguel Acevedo, 58, president of the Fulton Houses Tenant’s Association in Chelsea, has advocated affordable public housing for over a decade and has witnessed the effects of long-term board members in an area where land use issues are rife. “The expertise of the people that have been on the board for so many years is right on target,” he said. “Why eliminate something that’s been there forever, without giving the benefit of the doubt to the community speaking up. What’s in place, if it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it.”

While Acevedo admits that the make-up of the board in his community is not an accurate reflection of the district’s wider demographics, he points out that its members “make sure that representation by them is to benefit all. We should be aware of what role they play to defend and support us, ” he said.

He advises critics to reach out and establish a dialogue with the board. “You need to be more involved and let them hear your opinions for them to understand where you’re coming from,” he said.