Brad Hoylman took the time to phone us to explain his June 10 Charter Revision Commission invited testimony. He asked why we oppose his proposal — indistinguishable from that of Manhattan BP Scott Stringer — to force each community board to hire a planner to provide technical support on land use, transportation, liquor license, or sidewalk café issues.
Hoylman said having such a planner on staff would give community boards “teeth” — in our view, an overstatement — and would help boards “inhibit new development” as well as support it. Taking his assertions at face value, we tried to explain our concerns.
Right now, most land use plans get created by private developers, or are initiated by a community board and fleshed out in collaboration with the NYC Department of City Planning. Hoylman expressed skepticism about this arrangement, because, according to him, “City Planning is coming in with a pro-development agenda.” He also stated that if a board has to go elsewhere for its technical assistance, such as to an expanded borough president’s planning staff, it could be frustrated if the borough president were to oppose the board’s plans.
Hoylman’s arguments seem coherent on the surface. But they are based on faulty assumptions and a misunderstanding of what many community boards are about.
Our own experience working with the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning showed that DCP honored the prevailing sentiment of the community to use contextual zoning definitions to preserve low-density areas while allowing modest bulk increases in higher-density areas. Brooklyn Community Board 14 perceived no reluctance by DCP to develop a balanced plan. The Midwood and Flatbush rezonings were easily approved by the City Planning Commission and the Council and were widely praised.
Of course, in Manhattan, where the real estate development stakes are higher, Hoylman’s perspective may be valid. That’s the point: In NYC, one size does not fit all. Imposition of a uniform staffing requirement on all 59 of the city’s community boards and forcing them to hire planners may under-serve some boards and over-serve others.
More insidiously, the result of adding a mandated planner’s position to each board’s staff would be to narrow the board’s current multi-purpose focus. Hoylman tacitly admitted that this is his intent by repeatedly speaking of the boards as “planning boards — what they used to be called until their roles were expanded in the 1970s.
In our view, a mandated emphasis on planning would compete with the ability of community boards to monitor, coordinate, and advocate for improved local service delivery — something 311 doesn’t accomplish. It would bring them closer to a pro-development mindset than to a balanced one, and would diminish their value as lay advocates for their communities. Eventually, this could cause an erosion of public support for the boards.
Our preference: Give each board the same amount of additional resources and let each decide, within the charter’s mandate, how to use those resources to satisfy the needs of its individual neighborhoods.
When discussion of the district manager’s service delivery coordination role brought us back to the 311 system, which fails to give district managers useful feedback about individual service delivery requests and complaints within their community districts, Hoylman acknowledged that the city “is dragging its feet” on this necessary initiative.
Unfortunately, the local law he credited with forcing the mayor to supply 311 feedback to the City Council, public advocate and community boards, LL47 of 2005, stipulates monthly aggregate reports, and not the same-day specific feedback that would enable community board district managers to discern neighborhood complaint patterns real-time and assist in their resolution.
As to the Charter Revision Commission’s decision to stay silent about Hoylman’s employment at the Partnership for New York City, Hoylman explained that he had testified before the commission as a member of Community Board 2, not as a representative of the Partnership.
Charter revision should not mandate positions, nor should it provide mandatory funding levels for agencies, be it community boards, the independent budget office or operating agencies. Today’s best wisdom may make no sense at all in 5 or 10 years. The 1989 charter mandated one position at the department of city planning, a deputy executive director for strategic planning. The executive director is not mandated, but a deputy is. The charter commission should leave the management of government to its managers.
I acknowledge that this is not a related topic, but I have a burning question. Is it possible, under the city charter, to recall the mayor ? Do we have to go around starting a petition to get this citizen-initiated referendum on the November ballot ?