Working to make community boards better
Some politicians dont follow through on their campaign promises. But Scott Stringer, the new Manhattan borough president, is diving right into community board reform, one of his main campaign platforms. He shows every intention of improving this institution, which hasnt seen significant change in 50 years.
Although the 50 members on each of Manhattans 12 community boards are unpaid volunteers, they devote hours of their time each month to deal with pressing community issues and attend meetings; their opinions matter, and so do those of the community residents, local merchants and others who attend the boards meetings.
However, while the boards do a great job, a hands-off approach to them by the borough president is not constructive and allows problems to creep in. Stringer clearly is bent on bringing much greater oversight. Its long overdue.
For starters, hes reaching out, more than his predecessors did, in an effort to get more people interested in applying for board membership.
And hes assembled a panel of good-government and civic groups to lay out criteria, standards and guidelines for selecting community board members. In effect, Stringer is ceding power by doing this. Yet, he feels this process will produce more qualified board members. We agree.
Our local boards do effective work at no pay, but Stringer is right to try and expand the pool of applicants. He told us he could envision not reappointing 20 percent of the members who reapply even if they dont have absentee problems. It is important to make it clear that community board membership is a privilege and reappointment must be earned during each members two-year term. The borough president has no quotas and we are glad he is directing his review panel to take a fresh look at reapplying members to evaluate whether they are still assets to their boards.
Encouragingly, hes also vowed to make all new appointments and reappointments on time by April 1. Hes promised to promptly fill board vacancies and not to add new members to boards to pack them before chairperson elections, for example.
A major innovation of Stringers is to have every board chairperson and chairpersons of significant committees fill out the so-called short conflicts-of-interest form. Its much better to get conflicts of interest out in the open and deal with them before the fact, than to have to deal with them once theyve become a problem. This should avoid the serious situation that occurred a year ago in the Villages Community Board 2, where a member who owned two neighborhood bars was permitted to lead the committee which reviews liquor licenses and even lobbied his fellow members against a license submitted by a business rival.
Stringer seems to have already revitalized the borough presidency, and his proactive, smart, conscientious tack on the boards is a breath of fresh air.