CONEY ISLAND – This is not a good year to be part of the political establishment. Officials at all levels of government have found themselves suddenly under scrutiny as the possibility of losing their jobs rears its head.
In Brooklyn, some members of the community board that represents Coney Island and Brighton Beach are finding it difficult not to take this personally.
“Nobody puts baby in a corner,” said Pat Singer, 78. “I don’t want to be thrown off unless I’m too sick to do it.”
Ms. Singer and her colleagues on Community Board 13 are dismayed by a proposition on the New York City ballot next week. If it succeeds, members of community boards— the smallest, most local organs of city government— will become subject to term limits, instead of enjoying potentially unlimited tenure.
Community board members are not elected but are appointed by the borough presidents outright or at the nomination of city council members. The boards don’t enact policy but they make recommendations to the city on the issues facing their neighborhoods. Everything from traffic flow, to building permits to garbage pickup potentially falls under their purview. A city-employed district manager helps administrate matters, members are unpaid.
“I have appointees in [districts] 13, 14 and 15. Sometimes it’s difficult to fill those vacancies,” said Councilman Chaim Deutsch, whose district includes Brighton Beach. “It’s not like you’re getting paid for doing it.”
And yet, board members tend to stick around. Ms. Singer, for example, has served consecutive two-year terms on Community Board 13 since 1978.
She does not see herself as part of a calcified establishment but as a lifelong community activist. She is the founder of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, a non-profit community organization that operates out of donated office space in a Chase bank on Brighton Beach Avenue.
“I have met all sorts of people who I would never have had a chance to meet,” she said of her time on the community board. “We all help each other.”
Another board member, Joe Corace, is a New York district Governor of the Kiwanis club, and is active in promoting charitable events in South Brooklyn. He has served on community board 13 since 2008 and sounded hurt when expressing his opposition to the ballot proposal.
“I see myself as a volunteer,” he said. “I try to be able to use my experience and my expertise to help the area.”
That question of expertise is a contentious one. The term limits are intended to promote community boards that more accurately reflect the composition of the neighborhoods they serve. If the ballot measure passes, the borough presidents would be required to appoint board members from a variety of backgrounds— ethnic, economic or simply people who live in different neighborhoods within a district.
However, last August four of the five borough presidents signed a letter saying that the limits will inflict a “brain drain” on the boards, stripping them of experienced volunteers. This is dangerous, the presidents argued, in matters of land use and development, where they fear that inexperienced board members will be outmatched by corporate lawyers and consultants.
The lone dissenting voice was Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. In July, Adams testified in support of the term limits before the Mayor’s charter revision Commission. Adams was adamant that enacting term limits does not mean sidelining experienced board members. “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for community board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices,” he said.
Mayor De Blasio, in an email to his mailing list on October 30th, called on New Yorkers to support term limits. “Community boards play a very important role in our city, but to tell the truth some people serve on them for decades and there often isn’t a chance for new people to get an opportunity,” it read.