New York’s community boards are designed to serve as a link between City Hall and the city’s neighborhoods. But observers point to a strong consensus that the boards’ influence has faded during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms in office.
Public policy expert Joseph Viteritti of Hunter College suggested City Hall is less inclined to consult the boards on city projects and plans.
“It’s a leadership style that’s very top down, that looks at the city as a single entity rather than one that appreciates the differences that the communities may have,” said Viteritti of the current administration. “It’s very objective oriented.”
That’s a far cry from the original aim of community boards to decentralize government and give communities more of a voice in city planning.
The concept of community boards in New York evolved from prototype community planning councils, a dozen of which were established by Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner in 1951 and were meant to advise him on community planning and budget matters. It was an experiment in participatory government amid concerns that cities were increasingly being run by a faceless bureaucracy. In 1963, the City Charter established councils for the other four boroughs, bringing the total to 62.
Then, in the early 1970s, Mayor John Lindsay set up eight “Little City Halls,” each headed by a district manager appointed by the mayor. Created as another way for citizens to engage with city government and for the city to provision its services to the community more effectively, each “Little City Hall” had a “Service Cabinet” comprised of officers of various city agencies.
The two concepts were consolidated and became the 59 community boards, each representing one geographically defined district, when the City Charter was amended in 1975. The boards serve mostly as advisory bodies, meaning they have no authority to make or enforce laws.
Each board is made up of 50 volunteers appointed by the district’s borough president, with at least half of them nominated by City Council members. Board members must reside in, work in or have a significant interest in their community.
The boards have public monthly meetings where residents can address their community’s problems to the board members, like a rat infestation or noise complaints. They can then take community concerns directly to city agencies or officials. However, community boards cannot compel an agency or official to perform any task.
Since they are directly involved in their communities, the boards can also make recommendations to the city’s budget for their district, according to the needs of their neighborhood. The 1989 charter emphasized this role by requiring, among other things, a formal explanation when a board’s proposal was rejected.
In addition, community boards must be consulted in most land use issues and new developments involving city land in their community, including zoning changes. When new proposals come under review by the City Planning Commission, they must take the recommendations of the community boards into consideration before making a decision.
In 1990, the City charter was once again revised to grant the boards the power to create land development plans for their entire districts, called 197-a plans.
Even though the goal has been to foster community involvement in government, not all community boards are created equal.
According to Viteritti, boards in communities with lower-income citizens tend to have lower participation, so they are less successful in getting their needs across to City Hall.
“Areas that have more middle class and privileged communities are more likely to have people that are more effective at advocating their cause,” Viteritti said. “It does result in inequality of input.”