Several months ago, I urged term limits be adopted for community board members in New York City. Now, the Mayor’s Charter Revision Commission is proposing doing so, giving voters a chance to make it law this November.
As this news broke, four of the five borough presidents penned a letter opposing the proposal, while our own Brooklyn Beep, Eric Adams, refused to join them. In fact, he is a vocal supporter of term limits for board members.
Truth be told, I have never really warmed up to Eric Adams as our Borough President. However, this could be because I had the privilege of serving as Director of Community Boards for Marty Markowitz, Adams’s predecessor. After all, after working with “Mr. Brooklyn,” anyone else would pale in comparison. But here, Adams is spot-on in his support for these term limits.
In written testimony before the Charter Revision Commission, Adams said that the institutional knowledge long-time members bring to the board is valuable, but a reasonable term limit for Community Board members would allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices. The Charter Revision Commission is proposing four terms, which would equal eight years. This is the right balance.
The bi-partisan group of four borough presidents from Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx are concerned that losing long-time members could put boards at a disadvantage when reviewing the complex issues of zoning and land use in districts. Specifically, they contend that imposing term limits on longtime members “serves only to further empower real estate developers and the lobbyists and technical advisers who appear on their behalf before the community board.”
This is a legitimate concern, but what is left unstated is that Borough Hall has a land use unit with expert staff to assist boards as needed. In addition, funding could be provided to boards to bring aboard their own urban planning professional.
Term limits would give others an opportunity to serve their communities at the most local level. Community boards — the brainchild of former Manhattan Borough President and Mayor Robert Wagner, who established 12 community planning councils in 1951 to advise him on budget and planning issues — give members an advisory role with the city budget, land use, and agency service delivery issues in their districts.
Often, members who have served on a board for a prolonged period become “untouchable” because the borough presidents and Council members who appoint them fear the fallout of not re-appointing them every two years. This is probably because these members often have their own constituencies through their involvement in a political club or other civic organization.
From my experience working in local government, it is extremely rare for members not to get re-appointed. Residents usually only get their opportunity to serve when a member voluntarily chooses to step down, moves, or dies. Term limits would force more new blood — and viewpoints.
Cesar Perales, chairman of the Mayor’s Charter Revision Commission, said he was surprised by the amount of testimony heard about community boards and “their desire to see community boards improved as the arm of the community in terms of setting policy.” However, anyone active in local affairs knows that the community boards are where the action is, and why more people want their chance to serve.
Borough presidents and Council members are limited to serving eight years and we have survived. We will be able to live with board members having the same limits.
At least Eric Adams gets it.
Bob Capano is Chairman of the Brooklyn Reform Party and has been an adjunct professor of government for over 15 years.