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Attending your local community board meeting may not sound like the most invigorating use of your free time, but there are advantages to showing up. Though becoming an official member is a lengthy, trying process, it turns out that mere civilians can have an impact on the proceedings, too. Here are six reasons to swing by your local CB gathering:
1. Make your voice heard
Though you can’t vote on matters up for discussion—which might range from deciding whether to grant a restaurant a liquor license to establishing new bike lanes to approving special events—you will have the chance to voice your opinion on the proceedings. For particularly controversial matters, residents occasionally stage protests during meetings to draw attention to their causes. Late last year, for instance, members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio demonstrated their stance against Mayor De Blasio’s rezoning plan for their neighborhood, and presented an alternative vision for East Harlem. Community Board 11, where they demonstrated, ultimately voted down the proposed plan.
2. Help represent young people
Community boards tend to skew older: Members are selected by city council members, so they’re usually well-entrenched in their neighborhoods, and new positions open up only on an annual basis, and often in small numbers, as there are no term limits. It's fair that longtime residents who are deeply invested in their communities should be at the front of the line for CB appointments, as they likely have a strong grasp of their neighbors' concerns.
On the other hand, residents newer to an area who want their own needs reflected on agendas have an opportunity to make that happen by attending meetings. Jeremy Rosen, an Astoria resident who began attending his local board meetings after hearing a café license was denied with no review, says he noticed many of the members were older. “There was a certain air of fiefdom about the whole thing,” he says.
Florence Koulouris, District Manager of Community Board 1 in Queens, says that constituents generally attend when something on the agenda is very specific to their interests. "That's why you'll see different people attending at different times," she said. "For example, we recently had an issue up that affected children, so we saw parents with their children there. At other times you may see seniors there because something on the agenda may affect their retirement. It also depends on the district that you're in, whether the majority are homeowners or renters."
So why not bring some much-needed young blood to your local meeting? If you love your neighborhood and plan to stick around, it’s worth the investment of your time.
3. Meet your local representatives face-to-face
Perhaps even more effective than weighing in on a board vote is giving your City Council rep a piece of your mind directly. Council members, as well as other officials from local organizations, frequently attend meetings to address the board. And they want to hear about residents’ concerns—they have to run for re-election, after all. Plus, Rosen points out, “Most of these organizations, even the council members, have pretty poor outreach because of budgets and expertise. So you have to go looking for it.”
4. Find out what’s coming to your neighborhood—or isn’t—before anyone else
CB meetings aren’t always covered thoroughly by the media, even by local press. But the board’s decisions often help to shape the social scene in the neighborhood, via votes on whether bars and restaurants are granted liquor and cabaret licenses, or are allowed outdoor seating. Boards also weigh in on more daytime-oriented activities; for instance, a Brooklyn community board’s decision to redevelop a branch of the Brooklyn Library recently generated some controversy from residents, who objected to the construction plan because it involved the sale and privatization of public land. For locals who are curious or concerned about the future of their area, sitting in on a meeting will give them an inkling of what’s to come before anyone else finds out.
Florence Koulouris says that what attendees will learn at a meeting varies significantly by neighborhood. "In our district we happen to have a lot of cafes, so you're learning about what those local businesses are doing," she says. "You're also learning about the zoning in your district, and people who have special permits to use land in a way that it might not normally be used. By attending the community boards, you're learning all of the things that are going on in your district and it's your opportunity to know your neighborhood better."
5. Get a better handle on local politics
While it is tough to advance to the role of official member, appointment to a CB is an entry point to politics: Community board members sometimes do advance to positions on the city council and beyond. And attending meetings will provide a deeper insight into the workings of local government, including how proposals move down the pipeline and various departments interact with one another.
At a recent meeting of Community Board 5, for instance, which covers much of Midtown Manhattan, board members voted down an amendment from the Department of City Planning about inclusionary housing, on the grounds that the proposed new developments would “exclude low-income tenants from being full members of their building,” along with other detrimental impacts on the community. So while some items on a CB's agenda may look humble, others have real ramifications for everyday life—and for higher-ups in city government.
6. Have a real impact on improvements to your neighborhood
One of the greatest opportunities for political involvement comes during participatory budgeting, which allows all residents to help determine how funds will be distributed in their neighborhoods through a vote. Rosen says he became informed about the process by attending a community board meeting: “Councilman Constantinides’ chief of staff came to address the community board on the process, and that’s how I ended up getting involved,” he said.
Staying informed and aware, then, is one of the biggest advantages of being a regular at CB meetings. “I would highly recommend going to three or four a year, especially if there’s something on the agenda important to you,” he adds.
Koulouris agrees that attending meetings is valuable, not only for voicing your own opinion, but for connecting with others in your community, as well. "We're one of the most diverse communities in NYC," she says of CB 1's district. "We have third and fourth generation Astorians as well as young people. We have a lot to learn from each other."