Ira Harkavy, Florence Nathanson, Esther Lopato and Helen Henkin were community board members back in the day when board membership meant more than echoing the mayor’s priorities or being ignored.
The three women are gone; Harkavy, who quit as chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 14 to run for the bench, is retired from a long and respected judicial career during which he inspired a Hollywood film by sentencing a landlord to live in his own tenement.
All of them were “plugged in” (Harkavy, for example, concurrently led CB14, the Madison Jewish Center, the Brooklyn College campus foundation and alumni association, the Brooklyn College Hillel House, and the Midwood Development Corporation); all adhered to the highest ethical standards; all commanded respect and all used their formidable intellectual and moral powers to ensure that City Hall paid attention to the needs of Flatbush and Midwood, the neighborhoods their board comprised.
These were sophisticated community activists who were willing to volunteer dozens of hours each month because, as board members, they had clout. Once appointed, they enjoyed substantial independence.
Today, some of their counterparts are hesitant to disagree publicly with the borough presidents or Council members who appoint or nominate them. They often seem reluctant to take positions which will be ignored by City Hall or criticized in newspapers published by billionaires, who tend to view community boards as an annoying impediment to real estate development.
Most disturbingly, community boards now are getting painted by NYC’s major civics as in need of “professionalization” — a euphemism for re-casting the boards as development planners, while weakening their identities as lay guardians of neighborhoods.
Take, for instance a letter recently sent to community boards by Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a professionally-led advocacy group “committed to honest, open, and accountable government,” and “encouraging citizen participation in democracy.” Lerner’s group frequently aligns itself with NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Union, named by Mike Bloomberg as the public partner of his 2010 charter revision commission.
Lerner’s letter of June 16 transmits her organization’s testimony as submitted to the charter panel. The testimony stresses “what needs to be done to strengthen” community boards, especially “establishment of a consolidated central Office of Community Boards,” which would employ “a staff of urban planners to assist … boards with developing land use plans,” train “district managers and community board chairs on the … responsibilities of their agency,” assist boards with “navigating City agencies” and take other steps to bring order to the diversity that New York’s 59 boards represent.
In its emphasis on training and planning, it is similar to submissions by Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer and charter commission “expert witness” Brad Hoylman, which we have discussed.
Implicit in Lerner’s proposal is her realization that some community boards today have difficulty attracting members of the quality that Harkavy, Nathanson, Lopato and Henkin represented. But in proposing a solution, she is offering a stick without a carrot.
As long as community boards are marginalized by a 311 system that bypasses them, by a Board of Standards and Appeals that ignores them, by elected officials who discourage their independence, and by a mayor whose penchant for centralized planning and control weakens their ability to protect their neighborhoods, they will have trouble attracting the independent, iconoclastic, and passionate civic activists they drew three decades ago.
Even many community board district managers – traditionally the stalwart guardians of New York’s neighborhoods — fear to buck City Hall. They cite what happened to Gerry Esposito, DM of Brooklyn’s CB1, when he sent an email to his 58 colleagues to urge them to protest the mayor’s community board budget cuts. Esposito was subsequently barred from a Bloomberg press event promoting civic volunteerism. Esposito saw the irony. The mayor saw only dissent — which is something he doesn’t tolerate.
So reconciled are some district managers to City Hall’s heavy-handed rule that they have “adjusted,” now willing to let the 311 System handle service delivery complaints and let mayor-dominated elected officials dictate community board policy. One excellent DM spends his extra time playing poker. Another apparently has become so discomfited by this blog’s reminders of what community boards have lost that he responded to a recent email blast with a request to “unsubscribe.”
Community boards are in a vicious circle of disempowerment, disillusionment, and public disaffection, which, if left unbroken, will destroy them as effective advocates for neighborhoods and neighborhood distinctiveness.
But the circle cannot be broken just by training board leaders (what kind of training would 30-year veteran Doris Ortiz need?), “professionalizing” them, and forcing them to revert to their pre-1970s “planning board” roles. The boards need to be strengthened and supported by a public that itself seems increasingly accepting of central control.
Pro-democracy groups such as Common Cause need to ask community board veterans for their advice. They may hear that the key to “strengthening” community boards is to support their service delivery coordination role, while accompanying any needed training with meaningful charter-defined increases in power, independence, and influence.
Otherwise, board leaders, no matter how well trained, will have no choice but to follow the dictates of City Hall, and democracy — at least as measured by public participation in government — will take another step backwards.