By David Brand
In addition to deciding who will serve on the state Supreme Court bench, in the state legislature and at the governor’s mansion, Queens residents face three other choices when they head to the polls in November.
The Mayoral Charter Revision Commission voted last week to include three ballot questions that would limit campaign contributions in city elections, establish an agency tasked with civic engagement and impose term limits on community board members.
Two days after the decision, Commission Chair Cesar Perales, the former New York secretary of state, spoke with the Eagle about the process for deciding on the ballot questions and the community response to the proposals.
The ballot question to impose term limits on community board members has received the most attention and encountered resistance from four borough presidents, including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and many community boards.
However, Perales said, when the commission hosted public forums around the city, several community board members said that they favored term limits .
“Many of the people who came to testify were community board members and people who wanted to serve on their boards,” Perales said. “The tenor that was most expressed was that there ought to be opportunities for more people to serve.”
Perales said that demographic changes mean that many entrenched community boards no longer reflect the communities they serve.
“The community has changed but many, many board members have served 15 to 20 years,” he said. “That sentiment is what motivated us to put [term limits] on the ballot and leave it up to the public.”
Perales declined to give examples of community boards that do not adequately reflect their districts.
Last month, Katz joined Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in penning a critical letter to the Charter Revision Commission. The letter said that term limits would interfere with land use decisions, the “single most important function of community boards.”
“To adequately fulfill this role, volunteer community board members who take leadership roles in the land use process are required to develop an expertise that generally comes from years of experience serving on their boards,” the letter said. “To impose term limits on these members serves only to further empower real estate developers and the lobbyists and technical advisors who appear on their behalf before the community boards.”
Queens Community Board 5 Chairperson Vincent Arcuri told the Eagle he agreed with Katz’ assessment.
“I think the borough president voiced it very well in her response against term limits for community board members because of the institutional memory and knowledge of the communities themselves,” Arcuri said. “[It takes] a long time to get projects done and instituted and get work done in the community.”
Arcuri said the typical capital project takes seven to ten years to complete and demands consistent board members to see it through to completion.
Perales, however, criticized the notion that term limits would interfere with long-term projects.
“Boards won’t lose any of the institutional memory,” he said. “After a two-year period, they’re eligible to once again serve another two years.”
The proposal would limit board members to four consecutive two-year terms. After serving for eight years, the board member must step down from the board for two years. Former members are still welcome to participate in board meetings, which are open to the public, and provide guidance, but they will not be able to vote, Perales said.
After a two-year hiatus, individuals can be reappointed to the board.
Ultimately, Perales said, community board term limits will promote equity and diversity.
“All three proposals [enable] communities to believe that they are participants in the process, that the city is fair and democratic and they are invited to participate in,” he said.