FLIP YOUR BALLOT — Why The Back Of The General Election Ballot May Be More Important Than the Front
By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Election Day is less than a week away. While residents are eager to hit the polls and vote for their local politicians, the most important vote many city residents can cast is actually on the back of the ballot. That’s why the city is urging you to “FLIP YOUR BALLOT” with a website and dedicated media campaign to educate voters about the three proposals put forth by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission (CRC).
The third question the commission proposes has garnered the most controversy. It would establish term limits for community boards.
The ballot reads:
“This proposal would amend the City Charter to: Impose term limits of a maximum of four consecutive full two-year terms for community boards with certain exceptions for the initial transition to the new term limits system; require Borough Presidents to seek out persons of diverse backgrounds in making appointments to community board. The proposal would also add new application and reporting requirements related to these appointments; and if Question 2, ‘Civic Engagement Commission,’ is approved, required the proposed Civic Commission to provide resources, assistance and training related to land use and other matters to community boards.”
This proposal would change how all community boards are run, making it consistent across all five boroughs. The goal is to create diverse membership that better reflects the ethnic and cultural makeup of the city’s communities. This proposal would also change the application process, having it readily available online, specifically on the borough presidents’ websites. It would also require the Civic Engagement Commission, which would be created if proposal number two on the ballot passes, to provide additional resources and training to the boards.
While the Voter Guide lists more reasons to vote “yes” than to vote “no,” several community board members and elected officials have openly opposed the proposal.
Community Board 7 Vice Chair Chuck Apelian told the Queens Tribune that term limits already exist.
“All community board members must be reappointed every two years by their respective borough president after recommendation from their local community member,” said Apelian. “This two-step process is fair and equitable for anyone who applies, and community board reappointments are based on service and attendance. Otherwise, members are not reappointed. Community members are dedicated, passionate, hardworking volunteers who do not see their roles as honorariums.”
Given CB7’s open opposition to the proposal, Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton said the city sent out a notice stating that as public servants, board members cannot comment on the ballot item. However, Braton said board members can provide personal opinions as “individual residents of the city.”
Braton told the Tribune that as a member of a community board in Queens for many years, she finds that the proposal of term limits “is not a wise move.”
“There are new appointees to the board every year, so there is already a mix of new and old members,” said Braton, who reiterated that she is giving her personal opinion as an individual resident. “I personally don’t see the value in telling people who serve the city as volunteers, ‘Oh gee, we just want to push you out of the way.’ We have served this city well for the most part over the long periods of time, and we offer a great deal of knowledge in the process of government and how it plays out in Queens.”
Braton said all board members have to reapply for reappointment every two years. Therefore, in the event that a board member is not performing well, the borough president or City Council members can decide not to reappoint him/her.
Braton said she respects the CRC for recognizing diversity and expanding the opportunities for new people to serve. But she said there aren’t enough applicants to replace the current community board seats.
“Many Community Board members are valued experts as attorneys, architects, engineers, police and fire officials, and these esteemed individuals are extremely difficult to replace,” said Apelian. “Civic organizations rely on their local community boards for their expertise and institutional knowledge to protect the best interests of their neighborhoods.”
Braton agreed with Apelian’s sentiment, saying members should have the skills to do the job before applying.
“It shouldn’t be a learn-as-you-go; it should be a you-already-know,” said Braton.
Braton repeated a quote in the CRC’s report that stated, “Community boards function well.”
“If we function well, what’s the need to try and fix something that’s not broken,” she said. “If they want to strengthen boards, it should be to make some of the things we do less advisory and more required. The goals of the charter revision can be accomplished in different ways. The goals are admirable but in reality, what we lose, in my opinion, would be more than we would gain.”
According to the CRC resolution that was put forth in August, due to public comments from experts, elected officials, advocacy groups and residents, the commission saw the need to change the process to make voting more engaging and to increase participation so that the boards reflect the diversity of the city.
Borough presidents would have to publish an annual report disclosing the number of open community board positions, information about current community board members and their recruitment methods, in addition to posting the application online.
Current members would still be able to serve eight years or 10 years before being limited out. After they sat out for two years, they could serve another eight years. If enacted, this would go into effect on April 1, 2019. However, according to the CRC’s report, it would be a gradual change. Those who have already served for four consecutive terms are not barred from reappointment after one full term out of office.
Apelian said this feels as though the mayor is trying to weaken community boards.
“The mayor wants term limits for the passionate volunteers of our local communities,” said Apelian. “This is why elected officials including four borough presidents [including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz], many City Council members, state senators and assembly members oppose the community board member term-limits proposal. They understand and value the input of their local community board members, who willingly volunteer their time for the betterment of their communities.”
City Speaker Corey Johnson is among those who have taken a stand against the community board term-limit proposal, stating that the current system already works.
“These aren’t lifetime appointments,” said Johnson. “They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic-minded leaders who are interested in serving.”
The Queens Tribune spoke to CRC Chair Cesar Perales, who said he doesn’t understand why anyone would be opposed to community board term limits.
“The reality is, when we started to hold hearings throughout the city and began to receive feedback by mail and on the internet, one of the most pressing issues was community board term limits,” said Perales. “People were saying that community boards were not representative of their community and not responsive to the community’s needs.”
Perales said that many people who were engaged in their communities and attended their board meetings didn’t know how to become a member.
“There were a number of people who had interest but said no one told them how to apply,” said Perales.
Perales said he’s observed that if residents haven’t built a relationship with their borough president or city council member, they’re likely not able to get on the board.
In regard to feedback, Perales said the CRC received the most from Queens and in particular, from Flushing.
As a matter of fact, John Choe, member of Community Board 7, has openly supported term limits despite his colleague Apelian’s opposition.
Choe’s argument is that Flushing is 52 percent Asian, while CB7 is only 38 percent Asian.
“How can such a community board be the eyes and ears of the community when they don’t even speak the language?” Choe asked the CRC earlier this year during a hearing.
Perales said term limits won’t fully go into effect for another eight years. In addition, he said current board members should continue to apply and serve the board for the appropriate term; they can always attend, engage and give ideas at community board meetings.
“You just can’t vote,” said Perales. “But after two years, you become eligible again. So I don’t understand the concern. Community boards are good but they ought to be better. That’s the bottom line.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio is publicly calling for New Yorkers to support all three proposals on the ballot — including the term limits on board members.
PROPOSAL #1 — Campaign Finance Changes
“This proposal would amend the City Charter to lower the amount a candidate for City elected office may accept from a contributor. It would also increase the public funding used to match a portion of the contributions received by a candidate who participates in the City’s public financing program. In addition, the proposal would make public matching funds available earlier in the election year to participating candidates who can demonstrate need for the funds. It would also ease a requirement that candidates for Mayor, Comptroller, or Public Advocate must meet to qualify for matching funds. The amendments would apply to participating candidates who choose to have the amendments apply to their campaigns beginning with the 2021 primary election, and would then apply to all candidates beginning in 2022. Shall this proposal be adopted?”
According to the city’s Voter Guide distributed to all registered voters, this proposal would “lower the amount that a candidate for city office may accept from a contributor to their campaign, increase the amount of public funds available to participating candidates and make public funds available earlier.”
This proposal was put forth to eliminate campaign corruption by reducing the maximum allowable individual contribution from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide races. The contribution limits would drop to $1,500 for borough president and $1,000 for City Council candidates.
The proposal would also increase the amount of matching funds from the current $6 for every $1 raised from a small donor to an $8-to-$1 match. The measure would also raise the total public funding limits from 55 percent of the expenditure limit to a 75 percent expenditure limit, which is about an additional $1.4 million for citywide candidates who participate in the system.
“I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office,” said city comptroller Scott Stringer.
PROPOSAL #2 — CIVIC ENGAGEMENT COMMISSION
“This proposal would amend the City Charter to: Create a Civic Engagement Commission that would implement, no later than the City Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 2020, a Citywide participatory budgeting program established by the Mayor to promote participation by City residents in making recommendations for projects in their communities; require the Commission to partner with community based organizations and civic leaders, as well as other City agencies, to support and encourage civic engagement efforts; require the Commission to establish a program to provide language interpreters at City poll sites, to be implemented for the general election in 2020; permit the Mayor to assign relevant powers and duties of certain other City agencies to the Commission; provide that the Civic Engagement Commission would have 15 members, with 8 members appointed by the Mayor, 2 members by the City Council Speaker and 1 member by each Borough President; and provide for one of the Mayor’s appointees to be Commission Chair and for the Chair to employ and direct Commission staff. Shall this proposal be adopted?”
This proposal basically means that the charter would create a commission solely responsible for the civic engagement of the city. This commission would serve underserved communities and groups, nongovernmental entities such as faith-based organizations, and non–English-speaking populations.
The commission is projected to create transparency between the city and the residents, refraining from political interference, despite the fact that it is run by the mayor’s office.
Participatory budgeting, which has only taken place in the districts that chose to participate, has, according to the CRC, been a success, which is why the commission wants to expand it to every district in the city, allowing residents to vote on projects they hope to see in their backyards. It would also provide additional resources to community boards, which would include urban-planning professionals and language-access resources.
Perales said language assistance was one of the major reasons for creating this commission.
“There’s a dire need for language assistance at the ballot,” said Perales. “There are many languages in Queens, so there’s a greater need for language assistance, point blank.”
Not only would the commission provide language assistance to the large immigrant population, but it would also provide funding to community boards, which currently struggle to make decisions because they don’t have a budget.
Perales said gentrification is a major issue in Queens and that community boards have done nothing to slow down the pace.
“The civic engagement commission is going to have the money to work with community boards for independent consultants,” said Perales. “The commission is going to make things better. The initiatives [proposals 2 and 3] are intertwined and I hope they both get voted on.”
For more information go to FlipYourBallot.nyc.