By Yvette Brown
“Because if it’s Good for Families, it’s Good for Queens,” is what is written on Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s Twitter bio. Katz has always been heavily involved in the community and she started with the community boards, which is how she was able to take steps to better shape how they are run, including the voting process.
Community boards contribute to public dialogue by holding hearings and issuing recommendations about the city budget, municipal service delivery and many other matters that impact their communities and they play an important advisory role in considering land use and zoning matters. There are 14 community boards in Queens with each board having up to 50 unsalaried members and each member serving a two-year term. All members are appointed by Katz with half of her appointees nominated by the City Council members for the community board districts.
“There’s a lot more involvement with the community board and the Borough President’s office than I even knew before I became the Borough President, so we try to help them with their filings, they have a lot of financial documents that they have to put into the city. We help out with that, in the meantime, anytime something happens in a community board, I get the calls, and I have a general council and they don’t. So a lot of time what they’ll do is come to my office, and through the general council get advice,” said Katz. “I believe over 30 percent of the boards have changed since I became Borough President.”
Katz worked under Claire Shulman, former Queens Borough President, as the director of the community boards, which explains her involvement and her in-the-know of how the community boards should be run and how they’ve worked before.
“She was a very good worker when she was in my office, she was on top of everything, she was busy, she worked hard, so I have absolutely no complaints about Melinda and when she left, I felt sorry,” said Shulman. “She’s very into the community, I can see that just by the press coverage and then every week I get a notice on my computer about what she’s doing. She’s everywhere, she’s new, she’s trying and [only] time will tell.”
Katz explained that when she became Borough President, she found that the community boards weren’t all in order, especially when it came down to the percentage of appointments from the people’s council district, meaning there should be a certain percentage of the board that should be appointed by the City Council and the Borough President.
“So we tried doing that, [Community Board 5] was a perfect example, the percentages were just off. [Councilwoman] Liz Crowley had too many board members, she couldn’t keep those amount of board members, so we took off and we didn’t reappoint a lot of them,” Katz told the Queens Tribune. “Most of the board members were not Ridgewood and they should’ve been, I think they deserve 10 board members and so Councilman [Antonio] Reynoso has been good in giving us appointments last year, but in order to do that, we had to make room and so the percentages are getting back together.”
Katz ran into another dilemma earlier this year with Community Board 9 when it came time for them to pick a new district manager.
Katz had written to CB 9 about their voting process and the statement criticized CB 9’s decision to “steamroll” the district manager selection process, despite Katz’s request that they delay the vote until April, after concerns were raised to her office about the process.
Regardless of the statement, CB 9 continued their voting process, interviewing candidates Lisa Gomes, who was ultimately selected, James McClelland and Scott Wolff. Out of 46 board members, 12 of them were absent during the voting process, including the former chairman, Ralph Gonzalez – a fact that added further controversy to the vote.
The Queens Tribune reported that prior to the election process, Dr. Vincent Evangelista, the head of the District Manager selection committee, said he was “impressed with the process of picking a new district manager.”
“I wish the haters and the outsiders, who fiercely criticized this, were able to see how smoothly we worked as a team,” he said.
Sharon Lee, a spokesperson for Katz, said in an email to the Queens Tribune, “I can say for the record that right now, BP Katz has very little faith in the actions of Community Board 9. In considering new applications and re-applications to any Community Board, public trust in how the respective Community Board operated in the prior term is certainly something BP Katz takes into account.”
Katz did not reappoint Evangelista to the board.
“When I became the BP, we tried getting the community boards somewhat on a borough-wide standardized path. I felt like the involvement that folks that are not on the community boards have the ways they pick their district managers, the way they do executive sessions should all be pretty much standardized throughout the borough,” said Katz.
Katz also went into discussion about her opinion about term limits. Some community members have been on the board for decades leaving them with knowledge of history, which she says is just as important.
“I don’t believe in term limits, period, I believe that you have a legislative body and community boards are somewhat a legislative body and that if they don’t do a good job, they should not be reappointed, and so if they don’t do a good job, I shouldn’t reappoint them. I don’t believe in term limits and I never made that a secret, I think you’re getting rid of the most experienced people and I also think you’re telling voters that they don’t know what they’re doing, you’re telling them that if they have someone who’s represented their district really well, they don’t have the option of voting for that person and I don’t believe that,” she said.
Katz explained that experience matters, but it’s also a good thing when people come in with new ideas, which is why she turned over the community boards so much.
“But I also think it’s important that every district has the proper representation, which is part of the reason that [CB 5] went through such big changes,” she said.
While not everyone on the community boards agree with the changes Katz has implemented, some think that her work has been extraordinary.
“It’s important to realize that Melinda has been so valuable to the community boards because she has history as a council member, working in the assembly, she understands the workings of the board and how its real grassroots are part of government and she appreciates and understands our thinking,” said Frank Gulluscio, the district manager of Community Board 6. “I think her hands on approach, in general, has certainly been a plus to the community boards.”
Katz is now accepting applications from “qualified and community-minded individuals who want to serve on one of the borough’s 14 community boards.”
All community board appointees are required to re-apply at the conclusion of each two-year term and may be subject to review and reconsideration by local elected officials. The deadline for returning applicants is Jan. 22, 2016 and for new applicants it’s Jan. 29, 2016. For the upcoming round of appointments, the two-year term of service will begin on April 1, 2016.
For more information or to apply, visit queensbp.org/community-boards or call Katz’s office at (718) 286-2900.