Guest Op-Ed: Community Boards need term limits

Betsy Gotbaum is the Executive Director of Citizens Union, and served as NYC Public Advocate from 2002 though 2009.
Citizens Union

BY BETSY GOTBAUM

This November, in addition to races for federal and state offices, New Yorkers will find three proposals on the back of their ballots. At the heart of all three is the goal to strengthen the city’s democratic institutions and expand representation in government. However, some have flaws that voters should reject. 

The first proposal would change the city’s campaign finance rules, the second would create a Civic Engagement Commission, and the third would institute term limits on community boards and reform how community board members are appointed.

New York City’s 59 Community Boards perform important, but often overlooked, functions in our city’s government. Each board consists of up to 50 volunteer members, appointed by the Borough President, with half of those members nominated by their district’s City Council member. They have a variety of responsibilities, including dealing with land-use and zoning issues, assessing the needs of their neighborhoods, and addressing community concerns. 

Community boards represent government at the most grassroots level, and ensure that community voices are heard when it comes to policies that will impact them on the neighborhood level. If you have a question or concern about a quality-of-life issue or city services, more often than not, your local community board is where you will turn first.

Given the important functions performed by community boards, it is crucial that they be representative of the neighborhoods they serve. Community boards would also benefit from an injection of new voices, ideas and perspectives. As with any government agency, it is important to have as much standardization and transparency as possible.

Proposal three would impose term limits of a maximum of four consecutive two-year terms for community board members (with certain exceptions), require Borough Presidents to seek out persons of diverse backgrounds in making appointments to community boards, and add new application and reporting requirements related to these appointments.

These reforms will ensure that representation on boards can keep pace with the changing demographics of communities. They will also provide a healthy degree of turnover, which will allow boards to benefit from new perspectives and energy. This will lead to a more rigorous selection process for board appointments. The proposal will also standardize the appointment process across the boroughs and make it more transparent. 

A vote for proposal three is a vote to strengthen our Community Boards, which will strengthen our city government from the grassroots level on up. 

Since 1911, Citizens Union has offered New York voters a comprehensive review of ballot proposals and candidates running for city and state office through our Voters Directory. You can review our endorsements and recommendations for this November’s election here. As one of New York’s leading good government groups committed to fostering accountability, accessibility and transparency, Citizens Union encourages all New Yorkers to take a long, hard look at these proposals, and the candidates asking for their vote this November.

Betsy Gotbaum is the Executive Director of Citizens Union.

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