By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
MANHATTAN — Peter Borock doesn't have any political aspirations compelling him to apply to the local community board — the Upper East Sider simply wants to a bring a fresh voice to the grassroots governmental body.
"Somebody's got to stick up for the 24-year-old drunks," he joked at a meeting this week on the Lower East Side, held to inform curious residents about the function of Manhattan's dozen community boards, which represent the first line of defense in New York City government.
"Everyone should at least get their say and have their voice represented."
Citing nightlife is just one of the many hot-button issues confronting the Upper East Side, where Borock grew up, and the 24-year-old said the idea of participating in a democratic process was what piqued his interest in joining a community board.
"There's something really intriguing about local members of the community deciding on issues that are pertinent to their community," he added.
Borock joined about 50 others Tuesday night to get a primer on the function of community boards and what qualifications they need to apply. For instance, a prospective member does not have to live in the district covered by the board to apply, but can simply own a business in the area, attend school there or frequent a house of worship in the neighborhood.
But who in their right mind would want to join? The meetings are long, the position doesn't pay, and the boards' votes are ultimately just advisory.
"The community board is where the action is," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose office is responsible for selecting half of the each board's 50 members, at the meeting.
Stringer and his staff outlined the influence community boards have over everything from land-use to transportation to affordable housing, and issues specific to the borough's wide-ranging interests.
"At the end of the day," Stringer said, "we're a constellation of different neighborhoods."
Upper East Sider Karen Gutch, 67, is considering joining the board to tackle some very pointed topics — specifically the noise and trash produced by the deli she lives above.
"Where do I go to find out about that?" said Gutch, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. "It's not like I'm just some cranky old white lady."
The borough president's office has recently worked to reform the community boards, first established in Manhattan in 1951, to include a more diverse cross-section of members representing different cultural backgrounds, professions and age groups.
Each year, qualified candidates for the board are whittled down from a pool of applicants, and the selection process is admittedly competitive, with only about a third of applicants getting picked, Stringer's staff said.
The prospective members — just 25 are tapped each year on a staggered selection system — are then evaluated by an independent screening panel made up of local civic groups that vet the candidates and ultimately give their choices back to the borough president.
Once on the board, new members get first crack at anything from major development plans to liquor license applications — and can really affect the outcome of citywide planning, members said.
"We're a lot more influential than you'd think," said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and Chinatown. "Our members really are the ones that know what's going on in their communities."
James Wallace, of Hell's Kitchen, wondered what he could do as a community board member to address the situation on traffic-choked Ninth Avenue near the apartment he shares with his wife on 44th Street.
"One of the things they tell you in the military is grow where you're planted," said Wallace, in his late 30s, who applied with his wife to join Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen.
"We subscribe to this philosophy of participating in the community," he added. "I think it's a shame when people only meet their neighbors when there's a horrible accident or emergency or tragedy."
Wallace explained that even seemingly large-scale city issues — like the development of the Western Rail Yards, illegal hotels and bike lanes — need to be debated through the lens residents on the ground, not just politicians and officials.
"Being part of the community should be one of those things that's mandatory, not an option," he said. "I want to be able to say something and not just have it put in a file."
Applications for Manhattan's 12 community boards are due by Fri., Jan. 14. Applicants must have their materials postmarked or hand delivered to the borough president's office by that date to be considered for a 2011 appointment.