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Citywide Community Board Reform on Table at City Council Hearing

 Freshman City Councilman Ben Kallos is leading a hearing to extend reforms to the community board appointment and election.
Freshman City Councilman Ben Kallos is leading a hearing to extend reforms to the community board appointment and election.
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Kallos for Council campaign

CIVIC CENTER — The city's community boards will take center stage on Monday as the City Council mulls ways to expand reforms that have been implemented in Manhattan into a citywide reform of the local governance boards. 

Freshman Councilman Ben Kallos, who previously served on Manhattan’s Community Board 8, called the hearing in order to address concerns about how members of the city's 59 community boards are appointed and how long they serve.

"We have 21 new council members, four new borough presidents and believe it is 1,495 new community board appointments coming out on April 1st,” Kallos said. “We have a huge opportunity to do something different, do something the right way for a lot of people who have never done it before.”

Kallos said he hopes to develop a set of best practices to improve the selection process for board members across the five boroughs, on the heels of a yearslong process by City Comptroller Scott Stringer to reform the boards in Manhattan.

In his earlier role as Manhattan Borough President, Stringer worked to professionalize the board selection process, increasing recruitment outreach, and brought in an independent screening panel of civic and community groups like the NAACP and Citizens Union to make recommendations from the application pool.

His reforms came amid complaints that the volunteer community board members serve at the whim of the five borough presidents and their local City Council members. Observers have long feared the boards can be susceptible to political favoritism or backlash. For example, former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was criticized in 2007 for not reappointing community board members who disagreed with him on the Atlantic Yards development.

Meanwhile, the boards have increasingly gained power beyond their traditional role as community mediators over bar noise and traffic issues. They have become a critical, while still advisory, voice on local development during the real estate boom of the last decade, insiders say.

“The future of community boards has more to do with land use and zoning, than filling the local pot holes,” said Stringer, who led sweeping changes to the board recruitment and appointment process during his eight years as Manhattan borough president.

Stringer also installed urban planners on community boards, something strongly suggested in the city rules governing the boards.

“Community boards with the dedicated urban planner could focus on the big land use [issue] of the day and give communities a level playing field against a big developer or city project,” Stringer said. 

The new Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer, has praised Stringer’s past reform efforts and said she hopes to further empower the boards. Her counterpart in Brooklyn, Eric Adams, has said he’s interested in reforms similar to those enacted in Manhattan.

But only Brewer has said she’ll attend the hearing Monday. Adams’ office said he won’t be in attendance, nor will Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Calls placed to the offices of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo were not returned.

Councilman Kallos says he hopes Monday’s hearing will be just the first step toward ultimately bringing elected officials on board for much-needed reforms.

“The first step in a larger process of taking on people’s frustrations, whether it be with patronage or other problems that they see in the system, is starting with the hearing,” he said.

Observers said the reforms are called for.

“People have served for decades, the chair has served for decades and the board doesn't reflect the community any longer,” said Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy for the good government group Citizen Union.