BY LYNN EDMONDS
A lack of transparent criteria for the reappointment of community board members could stifle freedom of speech and political expression, a Community Board 11 member said at the board’s monthly meeting last Monday.
In April, Chairwoman Christine Haider announced that one of the board’s longtime members, Melvyn Meer, was not reappointed.
A month later, even after Haider had gone to the Borough President and requested an answer, the board was still asking questions.
“I’m really troubled that a board member […] was not reappointed and we don’t know why, and he doesn’t know why,” BoardMember Janet MacEneany said at last Monday’s meeting.
Meer was a “model board member,” she added.
Meer, who had served on the board since 2000, speculated out loud as to the reason for his removal during the meetings’ public participation period. He said he believed it might have had something to do with his vocal opposition to the potential high school at the Bayside Jewish Center. The board waged an intense battle against the school, pitting them against the School Construction Authority, and for a time, Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). Meer was perhaps one of the more outspoken, though not necessarily the most outspoken member to criticize the school plans. Meer added that he relished the board’s role in overturning of the school plan and viewed it as a rare and hard-fought victory against a much stronger foe.
The borough president’s office said they could not directly comment on why Meer was not reappointed, and as such they could not specifically rule out any one particular theory as to why he was not reappointed.
“To serve the public as a member of the community board is not a right, it is a distinct privilege, and no appointment is ever a given,” Sharon Lee, a spokeswoman for Borough President Melinda Katz said.
The City Charter decries that community board members are to be appointed at the discretion of the borough president, with half of them being nominated by council members from the council districts that the board covers. Under the City Charter no explanation is required when rejecting candidates, new or old, and no preference is specified for returning candidates – though longstanding candidates have traditionally often been reappointed.
But that did not sit well with MacEneany.
“The conclusion we have to draw is that the criteria [for appointment] are completely subjective,” she said.
MacEneany said she wanted to see explicit criteria and standards for community board members that made the selection process transparent.
Subjectivity, she said, opened the door to appointments or non-appointments to be made for political reasons. Theoretically, she pointed out, the borough president or a council member could chose not to appoint someone who didn’t fit their agenda, or someone who questioned or criticized them too loudly.
Service on the board is not necessarily terribly political, with the New York City government describing the board’s job as being primarily focused on fielding constituent complaints. But boards vote on important land use decisions, and while their vote is only advisory, it is considered to be representative of the community. As such, board recommendations do have a heavy influence on land use decisions ranging from homeowners requesting a variance for construction to matters as weighty as the Mayor’s affordable housing initiative.
Katz’s office did not comment on whether the appointment process could potentially be politically influenced.
There have been other instances recently where Katz or a council member opted not to nominate a longtime community board member, and ideological reasons were blamed for it.
In 2014, two members of CB 5 who backed Craig Caruana, the Republican opponent of Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), including Caruana’s uncle, were not reappointed to the board and blamed political retribution. However Crowley said it was to make room for new Ridgewood members as the community was underrepresented.
Last year, Katz did not reappoint Dr. Vincent Evangelista to Community Board 9. Though she did not specifically point to it as a reason, Evangelista and Katz butted heads a year earlier when Evangelista led CB 9’s search for a new district manager. Katz sought to slow the process down over concerns that it was fixed in favor of eventual choice Lisa Gomes, but Evangelista refused.
In February, Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) blocked the reappointment of 18-year CB 8 member Mike Sidell after he posted racial slurs and a blackface cartoon on his Facebook page.
Lancman publicly stated that the inappropriate jokes were the reason for Sidell not being re-appointed.
“Yeah it’s a free country and Mike’s not going to jail for posting racist Facebook comments. But being on a community board isn’t a right; it’s a privilege that comes with the responsibility of conducting yourself as a leader,” Lancman told the Courier in February.
That differed from the cases of Meer, Evangelista and Caruana, where no explanation was given.
But under the assumption that new and old applicants are competing on the same footing, a non-appointment is no indication of wrongdoing, poor performance, or political friction.
This year, Katz appointed 318 out of a total of 473 new and returning applicants.
Currently, political will to diversify and bring new blood to the city’s community boards is growing.
This year, 56 of Queens’ 318 community board members were first-time appointees. To date, 27 percent of appointees during Katz’ tenure were first-timers, her office reported.
“Borough President Katz has made a concerted effort to strike a better balance of experiences, new voices and proportional representation among and within the Boards,” an April 25 release from her office said.
More than before, it’s been suggested that community boards should be a microcosm of the communities they serve.
The New York Times ran a piece in January detailing that the 30-40 board members in any given district often don’t mirror their constituents in terms of their race, ethnicity, age and income level. In areas where the board covers multiple council districts, they have also sometimes had disproportionate representation of constituents from one of the council districts.
Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) also sponsored legislation to require community boards to disclose aggregate demographic data about each board’s composition.
As such, there could be more changes in community boards to come in the future. The recommended advice to rejected applicants, first time or returning, who are still interested in serving? Re-apply.
Domenick Rafter contributed to this article.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana