(NOTE: This essay was clipped from Queens Community Board 3’s website at http://www.cb3qn.nyc.gov/?p=37326, and, with its links and references, is best viewed from that vantage point.)
The essay is about governance in New York City. Its author believes that with charter revision and cultural change, the city’s 59 community boards can serve as effective first responders to community needs. The opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be construed as representing those of his fellow board members or of Queens Community Board 3. After reading the essay you are invited to share your thoughts on the issue via the discussion that follows the web version at http://www.cb3qn.nyc.gov/?p=37326.
The Community Board
- Democracy’s First Responder -
by Thomas Lowenhaupt, Member, Queens Community Board 3
Imagine New York City’s 59 community boards as vibrant governance centers where America’s ideal of democracy thrives. As places where societal issues are raised and examined using traditional neighborly contacts, augmented by the awesome power and global reach of community websites.
Imagine these websites providing publishing, communication, decision-support, and organizing tools that help residents clean graffiti, plant trees, advocate for improved sanitation, or a new school program. And that when necessary, provide a direct channel for eliciting support from elected city, state, and federal representatives.
Community boards don’t function this way today. Limited by minuscule budgets and a constricting city charter, they’ve been relegated to a subordinate position in the city’s governance process. This essay proposes that the boards be transformed into community governance centers where concerns and opportunities are identified and addressed. To achieve this, changes are required in four domains: administration, budget, culture, and law.
To facilitate governance and the delivery of city services, New York City is divided into 59 administrative districts. Each district has a 50 member community board appointed by the Borough’s President. The boards are independent city offices (like the mayor, council, comptroller, public advocate, and borough presidents) granted an unlimited span of advisory responsibilities by the City Charter. The Charter details twenty-one areas of responsibility with the first, an elastic clause, directing each board to "Consider the needs of the district which it serves.” For a detailed review of community board history, duties, and responsibilities read About Community Boards.
While the Charter provides the boards with this broad scope to discern local needs and seek their resolution, they’ve lacked resources to meet this charge since their creation in 1975. By way of example, consider the operation of Queens Community Board 3, a typical board in most respects, and one this writer has been a member of since 1992.
Community Board 3 has primary sway over the 2.8 square miles of New York City that lie within the borders of community district 3: from Roosevelt Avenue on the south to a northern border of LaGuardia Airport and Flushing Bay, with Shea Stadium and the BQE providing its east-west boundaries. Community districts are geographically compact, each holding the population of a mid-sized city, and a range of problems to match.
Board 3’s 50 appointed members and its 3 ex-officio city council members address the needs of the district’s 180,000 residents with a budget of about $1.50 per resident per year. With it, the board hired three full-time and one part-time staff to provide two primary functions: first, serve as the board’s secretariat, arranging meeting spaces, conducting research, and maintaining its records. Second, act as a “Little-City-Hall” addressing resident complaints and helping coordinate the delivery of city services. Beyond office rent and modest staff salaries, the board’s budget provides $21,000 per year to cover pens, paper, copiers, phones, computers, software, office furniture, training, etc.
The board meets in plenary session a minimum of 10 times per year, typically in a local school from 7:30 PM to 10:00 PM. At these meetings approximately 25% of the time is allocated to speakers about civic events or city-wide projects, 50% to items that have been reviewed by one of the board’s18 committees, 20% to new or revisited issues brought up by members, and the remainder on housekeeping (5%). For a typical agenda, see here.
The board’s staff spends 70% of its time processing resident complaints and assisting city agencies, and the remainder on its secretariat role. But two developments, the 311 Citizen Complaint Center and the internet, are changing its role.
311 - Mayor Bloomberg’s mantra these days is “If it’s an emergency dial 911.But for city information or to file a complaint about city service delivery, dial 311.” And with residents increasingly following it, routine inquiries and complaints are increasingly handled by the mayor’s 311 staff.
Internet - Since 2003 community board 3’s website has begun to offer publishing and information searches, modifying the staff’s responsibilities and work load.
These developments, combined with the empowering features the website offers board members, staff, and residents, provides an opportunity to significantly modify and enhance the board’s role in city government.
Change & Challenge
Technological developments, structural changes like the elimination of the Board of Education and Bureau of Franchises, and peoples expectations about government transparency and the delivery of services makes a review of the role and relationship between staff, board, and city agencies and the community they serve appropriate.
What roles should board, staff, and community play in these increasingly digital times? Should more board resources be allocated to addressing higher level Little-City-Hall tasks; things like recurring or multi-agency service delivery issues? Or do these changes provide the opportunity to enhance the staff’s secretariat responsibilities, with more time spent supporting the board’s representation, coordination, and planning roles envisioned in the city charter? Once these decisions are made (and these will vary over time and by community board), the board’s relationship with city operating agencies and decision organs like the city council and city planning must be reviewed.
Whatever the decisions, staff, board, and community activities will increasingly take place online, interacting with a frequency and on a scope of issues never before possible.
But while 311 and the internet have transformed the boards’ scope and mode of operation, their equipment, training, and support needs are not being addressed. And without access to these basic resources, several disadvantages follow.
Constricted Decision-Making – The speed and scope of communication between board members, board and staff, and between the board and community remains limited. Few community members participate in the decision making process. Without good collaboration and coordination technologies, participants have limited access to pertinent information, residents feel excluded from the governance process, thus reducing support for decisions.
Disconnected Boards - Without coordination, community boards often select technology incompatible with that used by the boards and agencies they interact with. Cross-board communication to share best practices and discern common issues is limited, often non-existent. Problems discussed on a listserv or online discussion at one board or agency remains unknown to another.
Inequitable Access – Communities with higher income and education levels are far more likely to have members, staff, and residents participate in governance using websites, email, etc. Not only is access to the governance process limited, but communities miss economic development opportunities due to these digital divide inequities.
Waste – Without centralized training and support each of the 59 boards must independently invent solutions for common needs.
With the exception of a few boards receiving grants or having volunteer web development expertise, most operate today as they did 25 years ago when office technology consisted of typewriters and copiers. Then, the staff could maintain its equipment with an occasional vendor assist. With the exception of an intermittent boost from the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, each community board is expected to provide for its own Information Technology (IT) needs. And while today’s standard business practice calls for one technology support staff worker per 8-10 information employees, not a single one is assigned for the 180 employees that populate the 59 district offices.
In a 350-year-old bureaucracy, where purchasing a pencil requires an astounding amount of expertise and paperwork, these IT requirements are onerous.
Expectation & Needs
Over the past decade, just as email, websites, and overnight delivery permeated the nation’s businesses and raised service expectations, community boards fell behind the technological curve. As city, state, and federal websites offered more transparency, openness, and services the community boards have come to be seen by many as bottlenecks. Staff expertise in the intricacies of government operation has been devalued as residents and board member request websites, GIS, and presentation technologies.
To open this bottleneck and bring the boards into the mainstream, assistance is needed in several areas.
Technical Expertise – IT staff assistance is needed to help with the selection, acquisition, operation, and replacement of computer and communication technology. A community board staff of three can not maintain expertise with rapidly evolving technologies like collaboration, GIS, networking, and presence.
Board Member Training – Community board members arrive from a variety of backgrounds with many lacking internet literacy. Training with basic website navigation and assistance with publishing, conferencing, collaboration, and other new softwares should be readily available.
Staff Training – The board’s staff is expert in matters of government operation and administration, i.e., which of the city’s 60+ agencies does what, and assuring that they perform satisfactorily. But to perform in a digital era, the staff needs training with conferencing, listserves, GIS, spreadsheets, websites and other software.
Support – Staff and board members require ongoing support for the operation and maintenance of their online activities.
R & D – Boards need an ongoing association with a research and development organization to assure that new technology is evaluated and made available on a timely basis. While developing the prototype community board website, a tentative arrangement was reached with CUNY to provide R&D support.
Public Engagement – With these tasks completed, the boards need the ability to promote their new capabilities and engage the public in the governance process.
Support Structure Options
Several approaches have been put forth to correct these limitations, ranging from eliminating the boards and their district offices, to their transformation into local communication centers. The following reviews a few of these options.
Elimination – Some believe that with the arrival of services like 311 and city administrative websites, Little-Town-Hall offices are unnecessary and the need for community governance diminished. And that the $14,000,000 invested in them annually could be better spent. But several factors require their retention. First, the diversity of needs within the city’s hundreds of ever-changing neighborhoods necessitates a focused local presence. Second, the internet will never supplant the quality of communication that takes place eyeball to eyeball as walk-ins address a city worker or official face-to-face. Finally, while technology has improved access for some, many are physically, financially, educationally, or emotionally unable to utilize the new devices.
Board 60 – The most direct way to address many of today’s limitations is by establishing a central support organization to assist the boards with their administrative, technology, support, and training needs. Sometimes called Board 60, it would train, support, and maintain a standard set of office technologies: collaboration, conferencing, database, email, GIS, spreadsheet, word processing, and website. A precedent for a support organization of this type has been set by the ???, which provides technical support for 7 smaller city agencies. Board 60 might also support the R&D efforts with local universities and intern recruitment.
There are several approaches to creating Board 60: Form a new support agency through joint agreement of the Borough Presidents; add a new Community Board Support Agency through council action or charter revision; or create a non-profit support organization.
Transformations – Some imagine the community boards operating in virtual mode, with board members and residents collaborating through online document exchanges, teleconferencing, polls, and other decision support tools. Others see district office consolidations as occurred when the old Board of Education was transformed into a Department of Education, and suggest city council members, with their fingers on agency budgets, can best assume the task of servicing walk-ins.
These are but a few of the option with the final choice including elements from each.
In developing a plan for a more vital community board, one should also take a comprehensive view of the historic role of the boards and long-standing constraints to their effective operation.
Until fifteen years ago, five organizations provided representation opportunities for New York City’s residents: the City Council, Board of Estimate, Community School Boards, and the Community (Planning) Boards, and Public Advocate. But in 1989 the Board of Estimate was eliminated as a result of court challenge to their representativeness, and in 2003 the State Legislature eliminated 35 Community School Boards in support of the Mayor’s plan to improve public education. But their elimination diminished the public’s opportunity to participate in education decisions. And the Public Advocate’s office has been shrunken to near non-existance.
To remedy these representation losses and increase the functionality of the boards, the following changes should be considered.
Lower House - Community boards currently serve as a ‘Lower House’ to the council on land use issues. With additional participation, planning budgets, and other changes as outlined below, they will be seen as a second house to the city council, in an asynchronous bicameral governance structure. Technology like RSS can readily provide board websites with council issues that relate to their districts, with the council readily provided with access to community board deliberations.
School Participation - While many community boards traditionally had education committees, their authority was limited by the existence of elected school boards. With their elimination school representatives should be included on community boards to facilitate public participation in shaping school issues and integrating schools into the broader community planning process. Additionally, youth should be provided with a seat at the community planning table. Engaging youth in a meaningful way in the governance process will provide huge long term benefits for society.
Planning Budget – Among the city charter’s 21 areas of responsibility, one directs the boards to develop plans for community improvement. But they’ve never been provided with the budgets necessary to hire the needed professional staff. Beginning in 1999, community and environmental groups began an effort to create an atmosphere and structure that would enable communities to develop these plans. Called the Coalition for Community-Based Planning, the effort was joined by the Municipal Art Society and now nine community boards (including Queens 3). The Coalition calls for strengthening the boards by providing budgets for staff training for professional planning staff, creating more representative boards with seats guaranteed for various local groups, and for boarder authority in ULURP decisions.
ULURP Teeth – With the elimination of the Board of Estimate in 1987, a key check on the Uniform Land Use Review Process was eliminated. Recent criticisms of the Board of Standards & Appeals’ activities have led the city council to consider legislation or charter modification to rebalance the ULURP process. This modification should upgrade the community boards’ planning and ULURP roles by requiring BSA to abide by a community’s 197a plan, with override power in the council.
Membership Upgrades – As public officials, community board members assume a responsible position with no remuneration and little public awareness and recognition. To attract a larger pool of candidates for board positions, the following changes should be made.
Dollar-a-Year - NYC has a long tradition of paying selected participants in the governance process a dollar-a-year to acknowledge their contributions. The mayor and a deputy mayor currently serving in this capacity. Community board members should be paid one dollar-per-year to acknowledge their contribution and raise their perceived stature above that of volunteer.
Member Page - Another membership upgrade will provide each with an online office like that being developed by community board 3. See http://www.cb3qn.nyc.gov/?p=37326 for a prototype. The Member Page will enable those appointed to the board to more readily communicate their views and receive resident opinions on issues and opportunities.
Professional Staff Support - Member initiatives should be supported by planning, engineering, and other professional staff, with resource allocation determined by democratic rule of the members. Perhaps Google’s R&D model can be adapted for use by the boards.
Reorder Organization Chart – The city’s current organization chart shows community boards existing beneath the borough president’s office and not as the independent organizations they are. With the city council playing a key role in the boards’ operation – as board members, participants in member selection, and budget providers – it would be appropriate to show dual lines of responsibility for the boards, one from the borough presidents and another from the council. This would reflect the reality of their operation and raise the board’s stature.
While the past few decades have seen progress in providing residents with access to local governance, these actions will transform the boards into transparent and accessible governance entities that fill democracy gaps in the present order.
Let’s imagine once again, this time that we’ve empowered the community boards with administrative, technical, and planning capabilities. And that they’ve become more potent and representative bodies. What ‘state building’ activities should we take to make residents aware of the boards’ existence and give them recognition as centers of local governance? How might we encourage residents to participate in analysis and the tough decision making that will give the board’s efforts credence in the eyes of the city council and mayor?
While the boards have existed for more than a quarter century, an ongoing awareness survey indicates that only 30% of city residents know community boards exist, and 10% know which board governs their place of residence. Step one in creating legitimacy is visibility. How do we make residents aware of the boards?
While a challenging task, there are examples that can guide the effort. For a short time during the Giuliani Administration, community district information was placed on the alternate-side-of-the-street parking signs that surround nearly every city block. While there was early success placing notations on signs in several districts (e.g., Queens CB-9 and CB-6, and CB-12 in the Bronx), the Giuliani Administration ended the effort for reasons unknown. Pasting a sticker noting the area’s community board to the existing parking signs could be undertaken with relative ease. Or perhaps we could follow Paris’ example. There the Arrondissement, or local administrative district, is noted on every street sign, with a “13e Arr.” or “5e Arr.” atop the street name. (See photo at top of essay.)
Another approach might be to place web addresses on the signs. While appealing, this has two disadvantages: the domain name lettering, e.g., www.cb3qn.nyc.gov, would have to be rather tiny to fit; and there’s the possibility that the United States may be forced to abandon its monopoly use of the .gov domain, thereby requiring the city to add a “.us” suffix to thousands of signs (i.e., www.cb3qn.nyc.gov.us). So for the moment, the simpler board notation via stickers seems appropriate.
But beyond awareness, we need to create some distinguishing features community residents can gather around. Think of the process as detecting and promoting community district DNA. This DNA might be some shared characteristics that enable district residents to view themselves as colleagues, partners, comrades, or neighbors. For example, my community district includes the whole of Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst neighborhoods, and the northern section of Corona. Tolerance is a common denominator in our multi-ethnic district. And we all dislike LaGuardia Airport’s noise and the pollution in Flushing Bay.
Once common denominators are found we might then baptize our districts with appropriate names. For example, the December 10, 2001 cover of The New Yorker had a humorous map dividing the city into 56 districts with names like Botaxia for the Upper West Side, Moolahs for the financial district, and Taxistan for my community.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. William Shakespeare
Was Shakespeare right? Can NYC residents be persuaded to trade their historic Greenwich Village and quaint Dumbo for another? Can you imagine someone on leafy Charles Street in Greenwich Village proudly announcing “I live in Manhattan 2?” I can’t.
But neighborhood names do change. My own is inching up the social ladder as landmarking and other civic improvements take hold. But just a few years ago, when Jackson Heights was popularized in pulp fiction as the ‘cocaine capital of the world,’ few proudly proclaimed it their neighborhood. Residents in the northern part of the neighborhood took to declaring themselves residents of “Astoria Heights.”
I don’t propose eliminating traditional neighborhood names as these often house important civic virtues. But community district names might facilitate public engagement in local governance.
Other methods to develop community identity might involve efforts like The Great Tree Hunt Competition, a game to engage and educate the district’s youth as to its borders.
Or perhaps a citywide art contest like those that decorated cows and horses in cities around the nation in recent years. In our instance, each of the 59 districts might sponsor a project that encompasses their district’s DNA on a float that will converge on city hall for a Community Renaissance Festival.
Being part of a political process, one must ask who wins and who looses under a scenario in which the community boards are empowered? Not knowing the precise form the changes will take, it’s difficult to predict. But as a general proposition we can ask if the borough presidents, city council, civic organizations, mayor, or media, will see the empowerment as a civic good or turf treading? Let’s look.
City Council – The council and its members will note several positive impacts. First, a more effective board will enhance the desirability of the council’s board appointments (1/2 of the board member seats require a recommendation from a council member). And as ex-officio members of the community boards they represent, their seats on a strengthened board will provide an improved venue from which to express their views. Third, a more representative and expert board will provide them with better quality information about issues of concern.
Advantage might also arise if charter revision provides council members with permanent seats on the community boards they represent. Currently, council members are limited to 8 or 10 years in office (depending upon their year of entry) with their expertise then lost to the community. In other political systems the experience of outgoing officials is maintained through such ex-officio positions. (Conferring a high court seat to ex-presidents in France comes to mind.)
Other impacts for council members might include increased pressure to regularly attend board meetings; concern about being judged by the quality of their board appointments; and feeling compelled to follow board recommendation rather than voting their own minds. But with board recommendations viewed as but one of the many inputs to their decisions, this pressure should be minor.
Borough Presidents – As with the council members, with the perceived value of board appointments increasing, so too will the BP’s status. And as the quality of the board’s membership and operation improves, the utility of the boards’ advice will increase. But there might be a loss in authority as administrative responsibilities shift to an organization like Board 60.
Mayor – The mayor considers so many voices in the review process that a small change in the community boards’ role will not be seen as threatening. And as the quality of the boards’ work improves, the mayor will come to value their contributions. The mayor might also value the opinion of a Lower House when reviewing council legislation.
The Media – There will also be an impact on the fourth estate. The board websites will provide increasingly transparent access to the governance process, a role provided today by local newspapers, in those areas where they exist. This transparency will provide a wealth of material for the media to explore, with local media’s ongoing success arising through the provision of more preview, opinion, and review.
Civic Organizations – According to the late Tony Dapolito, civic leader and longtime chair of Manhattan 2, prior to the boards’ creation civic associations took on many of the tasks now assumed by the boards. With board websites providing improved transparency, communication, and collaboration tools, civic organizations (ad-hock and permanent) might assume a renewed activist role, as today’s dependence on the boards diminish.
Political parties, real estate interests and others will also have concerns and valuable opinions about the changes brought about by a more effective community board, and these too must be considered.
As website features like Envisioning Governance and Let’s Organize make governance more transparent, open, and accessible residents will come to see the boards as an effective branch of the governance process. They will increase their level of participation, adding intelligence to the decision making process and energy to the tasks at hand, further legitimizing the actions of government.
And as our elected representatives come to value these contributions, they’ll view the boards as key indicators of the community will, adding legitimacy to local governance and benefiting all New Yorkers.
A Community Governance Plan should be developed to address needs of community boards, civic organizations, and residents and their role in the city’s governance structure. The Plan should include ideas presented here and others contributed by concerned New Yorkers. Elements requiring voter approval should be brought to the public in next year’s election, with full implementation in 2006.
This work is available through a Creative Commons License.