MBPO’s COMMUNITY BOARD INITIATIVES
Reasons for Reform
During his 2005 campaign, Manhattan Borough President Stringer issued a white paper examining the state of Manhattan’s Community Board operations and found that:
- The Community Board appointment process was politicized and unsystematic;
- Boards operated with ongoing vacancies;
- Rules on undisclosed lobbying and Conflicts of Interest were unevenly enforced;
- Community Board membership was unbalanced in relation to district populations;
- Boards operated without any external requirement of assessment and evaluation;
- Board members served without training or assistance.
Manhattan’s Community Board members confirmed the Borough President’s findings in a 2006 borough-wide survey, describing a dysfunctional system that needed a major overhaul. Based on the results of this survey, Borough President Stringer took the initiative to reform and empower Manhattan’s Community Boards. It was a responsibility the Borough President assumed in his desire to ensure that each Board was restored to its rightful place as an organization on the front lines of community planning and advocacy.
Reforming the Recruitment Process
When Borough President Stringer took office in 2006, vacant seats existed on almost every Community Board. Their membership disproportionately favored a few constituencies. Community Board members lacked the skill sets and expertise to properly do their jobs. And the average Manhattanite would not have wanted to be asked, “What is a Community Board?” on Cash Cab. Nobody knew. Not even a “street shout-out” could get someone the answer to that question.
The MBPO has taken concrete steps to improve the Community Board recruitment process and solve these problems:
- Connected with the Manhattan community. Specialized community liaisons from the office meet with a range of groups and community-based organizations throughout the borough to raise awareness of our revitalized Community Boards.
- Conducted targeted recruitment. MBPO staff compared the populations of Manhattan’s neighborhoods to their relative representation on Community Boards to determine underrepresented constituencies and distributed applications to community-based organizations serving them.
- Made applications more available. Applications have been translated into different languages and are distributed at over 5,000 community based organizations. Regular information sessions are held throughout the year. In 2009, for example, 5 information sessions drawing over 240 prospective applicants were organized in Manhattan.
- Publicized Community Boards. Board meetings are now televised on MNN and a Community Board centered television channel is in the works.
Reforming the Application Process
The Community Board appointment process has changed significantly with Borough President Stringer’s reforms. The Borough President’s staff drafted a new application that gathers comprehensive information on applicants’ backgrounds. Completed applications are reviewed by a Community Board Reform Committee formed by Borough President Stringer to function as an independent screening panel for all board applicants. This committee is made up of good government groups, non-profit organizations and community-based organizations, and has established a standard set of criteria by which board applicants are assessed. After approval by the Community Board Reform Committee, applicants are interviewed by two MBPO staff. The Borough President and City Councilpersons choose from the remaining applicants.
Under Borough President Stringer’s administration, Community Board members are systematically appointed and serve according to merit. Community Board appointments are made by April 1st and members serve full terms. This formal system for Community Board applications ensures that appointees become strong, committed Community Board members who look out for the greater interests of their neighborhoods.
The Community-Based Organizations represented on the screening panel include: the New York League of Conservation Voters, Partnership for NYC, the League of Women Voters, the Municipal Art Society, NYPIRG, the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizen’s Union, the Women’s City Club of NY, the NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, West Harlem Environmental Action, the Regional Plan Association, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center and the Urban League.
Empowering Community Boards
Manhattan Borough President Stringer has begun to empower Community Boards with the resources they deserve. Given that much of the work conducted by Community Boards revolves around issues of land use and planning, the Borough President has established an Urban Fellowship Program with New York City colleges so that graduate students in metropolitan studies and urban planning programs can assist Community Boards in planning activities while gaining valuable hands-on experience. This is a valuable partnership. The Planning Fellows help to shape development that is representative of the community’s needs and in return, they graduate with an acute appreciation for local government and the community perspective.
Ultimately, every board should have a paid professional urban planner on staff to support long-term community development. The Borough President has begun discussions with the Mayor and the City Council to secure additional funding to support such full-time planners for the boards.
The Borough President’s office serves as a resource and a guide for the operations of every Community Board. We hold the Community Boards accountable, setting minimum district requirements for service delivery and requiring annual reports addressing board finances, operations and progress. In addition, we have collaborated with them to develop Community Board 101, an ongoing training service for board staff members on issues including budgeting, land use procedures, conflicts of interest and ethics.
There is one clear result from all of these initiatives: Community Boards that are more prepared to build a better Manhattan.
Neighborhoods know best. Each year, the Borough President solicits questionnaires from all of the Community Board members, district managers and chairs to get feedback on how Community Boards should best be supported. The results provide key insights into the priorities, satisfactions and dissatisfactions of Manhattan’s Community Boards and guidance for future reform.
Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer • 212.669.8300
1 Centre Street, 19th Floor • New York, NY 10007 • © Copyright 2006
The Manhattan Borough Presidentís Office is an Equal Opportunity Employer.