Greater Diversity Sought for New York City’s Community Boards


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City Councilman Ritchie Torres, right, after a community board meeting in the Bronx.

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Yana Paskova for The New York Times

New York City’s ethnic diversity is on full display on and around Main Street in Flushing, Queens, a once predominantly white neighborhood that has become an overwhelmingly Asian enclave, home to another Chinatown.

But this seismic shift is hardly reflected on local Community Board 7, the body that is supposed to represent the interests and concerns of the neighborhood yet whose members remain mostly white.

“You have people who have been on the board since the 1980s,” said Paul Graziano, a local community and political activist in Flushing, who added that the board’s membership was by now “older and whiter” than the mostly foreign-born population of the district.

The type of disparity in Flushing is hardly an aberration. In one of the world’s most diverse cities, where white people make up less than half of the population, many of New York’s 59 community boards are poor reflections of their neighborhoods, according to elected officials and community activists.

And while many New Yorkers may have never heard of community boards, they are the most local form of city government and play an influential role on various issues that affect residents’ daily lives: affordable housing, traffic safety and the issuing of liquor licenses.

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A panel of Community Board 7 met in Flushing, Queens, earlier this month. The board remains predominantly white despite the neighborhood’s becoming mostly Asian.

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Uli Seit for The New York Times

Now, Ritchie Torres, a city councilman from the Bronx, is trying to address the problem through a bill he recently introduced aimed at collecting and making public extensive demographic information about board members and applicants as a way to cajole boards into making diversity a priority.

Community boards “should be the equivalent of the U.N.,” Mr. Torres said, adding that too many are essentially time capsules dominated by a neighborhood’s old guard.

Beyond race and ethnicity, Councilman Torres, a Democrat, believes boards should also mirror a neighborhood when it comes to age, income, housing, employment and other socioeconomic factors. A better mix, he argues, would make boards more effective in grappling with issues where firsthand experience is often helpful.

For now, trying to find out much about board members is a challenge. The websites of the boards and of the borough presidents who oversee them provide few details about members except for their names, partly because the city does not require much information from members, who are unpaid and appointed by elected city officials.

Mr. Torres’s bill would change this and would standardize the selection process, which begins each January, to fill nearly 1,500 board seats. Current members and applicants would be required to provide their neighborhood, employer and occupation. Existing board members would be required to provide their attendance records, tenure on the board and the name of the elected official who appointed them. All of this would be posted on the city’s website.

Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan and is one of the four other council members besides Mr. Torres who are sponsors of the bill, called it a step toward “transparency and reform at the boards.” New Yorkers, Mr. Kallos said, deserve to know “the demographics of who represents them at the community board level, their voice in city government.”

A spokesman for the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat, said Ms. Mark-Viverito was still reviewing the bill.

There would also be a list of questions that would be optional, including age, gender, income, marital status, level of education, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and veteran status, what language is spoken at home and if an applicant owns or leases a car. The answers would not be publicly listed by individual, but would be aggregated and listed by board on the city’s website.

Mr. Torres, who has consulted with Council legislative lawyers on the issue, said he was considering changes to the bill to make all questions mandatory.

The legislation does not force boards to replace members, Mr. Torres said, but he hopes that making board demographics public will pressure them to recruit members and increase diversity.

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Signs outside a meeting place for Community Board 11 in the Bronx.

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Yana Paskova for The New York Times

“The starting point is diagnosing the problem,” said Mr. Torres, 27, who is the Council’s youngest member.

On many boards, membership, he said, “skews toward the politically connected and the visible and vocal factions of the community,” and away from more marginalized populations, including low-income families and those lacking English skills.

Community boards are centers of local politics and are often seen as a steppingstone to elected office, a way to gain prominence, hone political skills and build connections.

Members are mostly local residents. Half of a board’s seats are nominated by local council members and the other half by the borough president, who has ultimate say over all appointees. Board terms last two years, with no term limits, and members are often reappointed.

The boards are limited in power and play a mostly advisory role, but they can influence important issues. More than two dozen community boards recently rebuked Mayor Bill de Blasio by voting against a plan to rezone neighborhoods to allow taller buildings and more development that the mayor said would create more lower-cost housing. Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, has said he will tweak his strategy to rebuild momentum and secure the boards’ support.

In Queens, the population of the district covered by Community Board 7 is about 250,000, the largest of any district in the borough. About 56 percent of the residents are foreign born. Of the district’s total population, Asians make up 50 percent, whites 28 percent and Hispanics 17 percent, according to census data.

Of the board’s 50 seats, 28 are filled by whites, 12 by either Chinese or Koreans and the rest by other immigrants, according to Marilyn Bitterman, the board’s district manager.

Chuck Apelian, the board’s first vice chairman, dismissed any suggestion that the board lacked diversity, and said he was more concerned with having effective, informed members than filling demographic quotas.

“Listen, we have Chinese, Korean, we have an Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Greek, we got German, Irish, Italian, Armenian, Jewish,” Mr. Apelian said. “Is that enough? How much more diverse can you get?”

He was also concerned about asking applicants for the kind of personal information envisioned by Mr. Torres’s bill. “Filling out an application with sensitive information, with sexual orientation, income level, it’s really nobody’s business,” he said. “We’re in an electronic age, and people can use it the wrong way.”

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Members of Community Board 7 watch a slide show during a meeting.

Credit
Uli Seit for The New York Times

Mr. Torres said that in visiting community boards he had noticed that many were filled with people well over 50, who were “invested in the status quo, who cling onto their memberships in perpetuity,” leaving many boards to be run as “a gerontocracy.”

In the Bronx, more than half of the 50 members of Community Board 11 are white and over age 50, according to board officials, even though census figures show that 30 percent of the district’s population is over 50 and that 24 percent is white, with the vast majority of residents being minorities.

Tony Vitaliano, the board’s chairman, said older members brought valuable life experience to complex issues. “They’ve been down the road already,” said Mr. Vitaliano, 75, a retired police lieutenant.

Another longtime board leader, the Rev. Richard Gorman, a priest who has been chairman of Community Board 12 in the northern Bronx for 20 years, said he relied on local elected officials to put forth diverse candidates.

“I don’t ask questions because it’s not my concern whether you’re married, single, gay, straight, rich or poor,” Father Gorman said. “We work with who God sends us.”

Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said she had begun asking demographic questions of applicants and was planning on posting aggregated demographic information on her website.

Ms. Brewer, a former vice chairwoman of Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, praised Mr. Torres’s bill for seeking to set a citywide standard because the running of boards and the application process varies, with each board setting its own bylaws.

Ms. Brewer, a Democrat, said she had created recruiting programs in public housing and training programs for new members, as well as a screening system to find worthy candidates and minimize political favoritism.

Regarding the personal questions that she asks, she said applicants “have the right to say ‘no,’ but most people say ‘yes.’”

“The reason we have the data,” she added, “is to make sure we keep up with the neighborhoods.”

Mr. Torres said change would not come overnight.

“We’re starting a conversation that’s long overdue, and there’s no telling how the community boards will react,” he said. “You cannot require community boards to be diverse, but we want to get community boards to get thinking more about diversity.”



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