District managers ask NYC to increase community council budgets

“Community councils are currently being asked to do more with less,” wrote a task force of district managers and administrative staff in a report released last month. “Especially over the last year and a half, community councils have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis.”

A Manhattan Community Board 8 meeting in 2015.

Nominations are currently open for New York’s 59 community councils, but a new report says first-year members aren’t expected to be the only change in local democracy nodes.

District managers and community council staff from all five boroughs discussed how to make councils stronger, smarter and more accessible as they weigh in on key land use and budgeting decisions, rezoning at the neighborhood level to liquor permits.

New York City’s Community Councils of the Future Task Force says it all starts with more money to meet the demands set out in a 2018 city charter review.

“Community councils are currently being asked to do more with less,” wrote a task force of district managers and administrative staff in a report released last month. “Especially over the last year and a half, community councils have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis.”

The task force, made up of district managers and staff from 28 city councils, urged the city to pay for technology upgrades that will make meetings more accessible, fund a planner for each council and require a consistent training for members, especially regarding conflict of interest and complex land use rules.

They noted that some council members have little understanding of the zoning issues they are expected to vote on. Other members have unreported conflicts of interest as they intervene on housing and land use issues, the report adds.

The start of a new class of mayor and city council administration provides “an opportunity to strengthen the collaborative relationship between community councils and all elected officials and agency staff with whom they interact,” the group wrote. job.

Community councils serve as key conduits between local neighborhoods and the city government. All members are nominated by their borough president and up to half are recommended by their councillor. Each community council is made up of up to 50 unpaid representatives who live, work, or have a connection to the district. New York’s community districts have a population of 50,000 to about 200,000, more than the entire population of Birmingham, Alabama or Akron, Ohio, the report notes.

Modern community councils were created in 1968 in response to demands for more representative local democracy. The city charter, which established the current structure of 59 community districts in 1975, empowered councils to cast advisory votes on land use applications, submit an assessment of local needs during the budgeting process, and organize forums on pressing community issues. They meet at least once a month, except in July and August, and are headed by an elected president. Each council also includes various committees, such as land use, which meet for additional public sessions.

But it’s the district managers and administrative staff, the city’s paid employees, who work behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly — or not so smoothly, according to the report. The task force was led by Celestina León, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 4 (Bushwick), and Susan Stetzer, district manager of Manhattan Community Board 3 (Chinatown, Lower East Side).

The task force said the city’s current funding levels — $231,100 for staff and less than $27,000 for things like office supplies and mail costs — have prevented them from hiring more people. employees, undergo digital training or upgrade their communication technology. This has hampered access over the past two years as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced community councils to operate remotely.

The city has not significantly increased operating budgets for community councils since 2014.

A handful of boards in wealthier communities raised funds through nonprofits — a necessary arrangement, the report’s authors wrote, citing the experience of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6.

Adi Talwar

A meeting of the East Harlem Community Board’s Land Use, Landmarks and Planning Committee 11 in 2016, weighing in on the neighborhood rezoning plan under consideration at the time.

“At current city funding levels, the CB6 District Office is chronically lagging behind in its ability to meet the demands of the council’s work,” they said. “Proactive planning and long-term thinking are rare privileges for an organization with a mandate to represent and advocate for the varied needs of its neighborhoods.”

The extra money helped Brooklyn’s CB6, which represents Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope and Red Hook, archive online meeting videos. They and other boards, like Central Queens’ Community Board 6, have also embraced social media to promote membership, upcoming hearings and other local issues.

Other councils have not adapted as well to the digital requirements. Technical training and IT support would go a long way, the task force said.

No issue captures the attention of community councils more than their advisory decisions on land use issues, including ward-level rezonings proposed by the Department of Town Planning. However, it is also an area that some members know little about.

“While many members are deeply committed to their responsibilities, others are either disconnected from the work of the board or lack the tools they need to succeed,” the report said.

District managers who took part in the task force said some members seemed “totally unfamiliar with the work and processes of community councils”, suggesting their appointments were purely political considerations on the part of a chairperson. borough.

“Why would you want to join something you have no direct knowledge of?” a district manager responded.

A 2018 charter review required the city to provide training for council members, but in practice this has not been the case.

The task force recommended that borough presidents require potential members to attend at least council meetings prior to their appointment and asked the city to require training on zoning and land use, meeting procedures and conflicts of interest.

“We have always been small but mighty, accomplishing a lot with little,” the report says. “However, as the city emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become even clearer that the resources provided are insufficient to allow us to effectively carry out our responsibilities, including our critical frontline role in managing local and citywide crises. ”