On A Community Board, Frustration (And Hurt Feelings) Over Term Limits

Pat Singer (center) in her office at the Brighton Neighborhood Association in Brighton Beach. Photo Ben Masten/Bklyner

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.”

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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.

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  1. The net effect of this vote is nil. The current long-term members will still have eight years in which to serve(2026?). Of course, since the Boro President appoints until December 2021 he can just not re-appoint anyone with eight years already served. Thank you and goodbye. Get rid of everyone before he leaves. That alone would be true term-limiting and sooner. Approval next Tuesday in Brooklyn would give him greater reason and moral support.

    Trouble with the new applicants is they’ve just arrived and want to change everything without learning to appreciate how it all fits together for success. Unfortunately, they too often move on.

  2. If the concern among borough presidents is “brain drain,” all that really needs to be done is training. Why couldn’t there be educational workshops and/or instructional videos for interested CB members to teach the nitty gritty of what CB members do? Longterm members who are up against term limits could consult for these courses or even teach them as another way to serve their neighborhoods. The profound lack of transparency in some CBs is intentional, designed to hide the corruption and cronyism that defeats the democratic principle the CBs should represent. The best way to end this practice in some CBs is to institute term limits.

  3. Is there a huge influx of people trying to volunteer for community boards? It seems risky to be kicking passionate, long-term members who have shown their commitment, off the board for (possibly) flakier members? Its not like these people are being paid or getting any glory from doing this.

  4. These people are the prime example of why we need term limits. If someone has been a community board member for 40 years, it’s time to let in some fresh air and fresh ideas. If they are so passionate about their community there is nothing stopping them from continuing to attend meetings and sharing their expertise, just like the regular, non-board member people in the neighborhood do. You don’t have to be a community board member to improve your neighborhood.


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