CROWN HEIGHTS —On Tuesday, one of New York City’s most dysfunctional community boards got a new leader.
Fred Baptiste took the helm of Brooklyn Community Board 9 at a special meeting earlier this week— a meeting that was called after the board ran out of time and was unable to vote during its last pre-summer break session when the former chair Patricia Baker unexpectedly withdrew her name from the running.
The city’s 59 community boards are tasked with representing their community districts by weighing in on matters such as developers housing and rezoning proposals, homeless shelters, liquor licenses, and bike lanes. But chiming in on day-to-day municipal government issues is not for what Community Board 9 (CB9) is known.
The central Brooklyn board, which covers Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Wingate and parts of Flatbush, has of late been home to a fair amount of controversy and sometimes outright chaos at meetings, where routine agenda items turn into a loud, unproductive free-for-all. In recent years, there have been fights over a blog, numerous disagreements about development, the board has been sued, and carrying out its duties has been hindered by constant bickering about community board processes and the like.
Additionally, the board has been without district manager for more than three years, because the board has been unable to come to enough of a consensus on a candidate. They will again pick the conversation up in September, after Baptiste successfully put forward a motion calling for CB9 to go back to the drawing board after the summer break.
At that June meeting, the former chair, Patricia Baker, characterized the board as “dysfunctional” while telling the board in June that she would not seek re-election. CB9’s new chair, Baptiste, a records manager in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, doesn’t disagree.
“We are noted for our dysfunction,” Baptiste told Bklyner in a recent interview. “That’s been the tagline for CB9 for a few years now, and that’s what I really want to stop, because that dysfunction stops us from being able to do the things that we want to do, should be able to do.”
According to Baptiste, the consequences of the disarray does not stay confined to the board’s internal dealings.
“We should be able to advocate for services. There are definitely people being hurt in terms of things that are going on,” he explained. “To me, to come here for two hours a month and we don’t even have a quorum, people walk out and we don’t even finish the agenda, that’s a disservice to everybody.”
Baptiste—who was born in Crown Heights, raised in Flatbush and now lives in Crown Heights with three teenage children— became a member of the board in 2012, after being involved in his local Parent Teacher Association board. A neighbor, he says, got him involved in the community board.
Baptiste was in the Marine reserves for eight years, and was called for active duty during the Iraq war as a platoon sergeant—an experience he says has prepared him to deal with strife between various characters. He says he will be able to keep things under control with the “personalities” that he says have created much of the disorder.
“Dealing with personalities is something I’ve done for a while,” he said with a smile.
Asked how he would handle things differently than Baker, Baptiste articulated a by-the-book approach to presiding over the community board, saying it “should be more purposeful” when making decisions.
“I think our bylaws really are the guide, and too many times, we get into trouble because don’t go by our own bylaws,” he said. “Too often, we freelance.”
“One of the concepts they taught us was, ‘Ready, fire, aim,” he went on. “So you get ready, then you think about where you’re aiming.”
If all goes according to plan, Baptiste would turn the community board into a well-oiled machine, never straying from the rules, and not running out of time during meetings after screaming and arguing delays the agenda.
But what will he do when the shouting and fighting between members at a meeting starts? Baptiste says he won’t let things get to that point to begin with.
“As a chair … you keep it from getting to the point,” he said. “I’m not going to allow that. … We should never allow it to become personal.”
“The sad thing is we allow the bickering to happen back and forth, when I think it’s the responsibility of the leadership to say we’re not having that back and forth,” he continued. “There is a certain point where, as a chair, you’re supposed to say, ‘We’re not doing that, we’re not having that, that’s not what we’re going to do, and we’re going to move forward.’”
Once the community board is being run the way he wants it to be, he hopes to push for a contextual downzoning to prevent development in the neighborhood— a common request Brooklyn community boards push for, often to no avail. Baptiste says a downzoning, if implemented, would help development to stop “feeding the beast” of gentrification and curb unwated aesthetic changes in the area.
“I would love to see contextual zoning, because I think that one of the things that happens is you have beautiful neighborhoods, and all of the sudden, you get new buildings, and the character of the neighborhood gets lost,” he said, adding he doesn’t want people to feel like “strangers in their own neighborhood.”
But more important than any specific initiative, Bapstiste says, is prioritizing to make sure that CB9 adopts a better process to deliver the district’s requests and needs to the appropriate officials and agencies. His agenda, Baptiste says, is to be an open book, absorb what people on the board want and go from there.
“Really, my wish is that we have a mechanism to create a wishlist,” he said.
He wants people to be able to say, “This is what bothers me, this is what irks me, this is the service I’m not getting and this is what I would like to see,” and see results, he explained.
“We’re supposed to be representatives of the community, and we’re supposed to take up that mantle and we chew on that for you and help you develop something,” he said.
He added, “My agenda is really that I love Brooklyn, I love my neighborhood and I really want to see us be able to move forward and get the things done.”
In addition, Baptiste thinks the community board needs to do a better job of representing the community district outside of just the members on the board, particularly lower-wealth people in central Brooklyn. Asked if the community board is currently representative of the district as a whole, he said “probably not”.
Baptiste explained that, generally, CB9 members tend to be slightly more affluent, educated and tuned-in to local politics than the average person who lives within CB9’s borders. He said he wants the board’s members to do a better job of reaching out to their neighbors as well as those who don’t regularly come to meetings.
“Not too many of us on the board are living at 50 percent AMI [area median income], because we’d really be struggling, and we’d probably not have time to be on the board because you’re working a second or third job,” he said. “There’s a whole number of people in the district who aren’t represented, and we need to speak more for them. They’re the ones we need to be advocating for.”