Community Boards struggle to prepare for in-person meetings, call for remote options

Community Boards 9's Nostrand Avenue office
Community Board 9 frequently holds committee meetings in their Nostrand Avenue office — a space a little too cramped for social distancing.
Photo by Ben Verde

The end of summer is fast approaching, and with it the end of a two-month summer break for community boards across the city. For the first time in a year and a half, the local advisory committees will be meeting in-person — sparking anxieties as the Delta variant drives up COVID cases in New York City.

“I have already started receiving notices from board members that have told us if these meetings are going to be in person then I won’t be there,” said Celestina Leon, district manager for Bushwick’s Community Board 4. “I would guess that maybe up to ten board members probably just won’t be there, at this point, because of the Delta variant.”

Community boards are bound to the state’s Open Meetings Law, requiring that the public receive adequate advanced notice of when and where a meeting of a public body is scheduled, that minutes and votes taken are recorded, and, most importantly, that those meetings are held in person.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency in New York State in March 2020, public bodies — including community boards — were allowed to take their meetings online, meeting virtually from the safety of their homes.

A screenshot of a Zoom community board meeting
Virtual meetings, like this October gathering of Brooklyn Community Board 6, became the norm during the pandemic. Screenshot

In late June, the state of emergency was lifted, mandating that meetings be held in person again. Most community boards were already adjourned for the summer, and were not prepared to return in person just two months later.

Members who choose to skip in-person meetings won’t be giving up their place on the board, Leon said, but it may become more difficult for committees to achieve a quorum of more than half of committee members, making it impossible to take votels and pass resolutions. Current guidance from the state says that committee members attending remotely do not count toward the quorum.

She’s been reviewing options for hybrid meetings, trying to figure out what technology will be needed to allow in-person and remote attendees to hear and see each other to participate in discussions.

“We just received a proposal to start hybrid meetings,” she said. “It’s something that has to be reviewed, it’s costly. Let’s just say it’s a chunk of change that I don’t personally feel comfortable, as the manager, just approving on my own.”

In a letter to state lawmakers, eight district managers and 10 chairs of community boards in Brooklyn called on the state to allow for a remote option once meetings resume fully, citing concerns about the Delta variant and the limited resources available to community boards.

“The Brooklyn Community Boards need your assistance in providing some flexibility in returning to in-person meetings,” the letter reads. “We request that community boards have the option to use virtual meetings in lieu of in-person meetings as we continue to work to identify available meeting spaces that appropriately support social distancing and increase our capacity to support in-person meetings.”

The state government is currently out of session, and amending the OML would require a special session be convened. 

Dante Arnwine, District Manager of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights and one of the letter’s main authors, said his board is equally unclear on how to proceed. Committee meetings are typically held in the board’s cramped Nostrand Avenue district office, with no space whatsoever for social distancing.

Picture of people cramped at an in-person community board office
Some community board meeting, like this Jan. 2020 meeting at Brooklyn Community Board 1, draw large crowds to small spaces.Photo by Kevin Duggan

A return to in-person meetings would mean seeking out alternative meeting places for committee meetings, many of which cost money to rent out — something Arnwine says is just not in the board’s budget.

“It really kind of puts us in a pickle in terms of how much can we actually spend to host meetings when some of these places are rather expensive,” he said. “It’s not just reserving general board meetings, we have 10 committees so that’s like 100 rooms that need to be reserved throughout the year.”

Josephine Beckmann, the District Manager of Community Board 10 in Bay Ridge, says the board hopes to host hybrid meetings after the break, but does not feel technologically equipped yet, and the city’s Department of Information Technology is ill-equipped to help every board at once. 

“We are trying to be compliant. We have asked for a little more time because we have technology needs, real technology needs,” Beckmann said. “We have one Department of Information and Technology— who’s great, he is a wonderful liaison that we have— but he’s one person to 59 community boards.”

Community Board 4 is preparing for a test drive next week, when their parks committee meets to review field permits for the fall. Leon similarly said the city’s information technology department has been helpful, but that they’re also trying to balance the needs of dozens of community boards trying to figure out hybrid meetings — leaving her feeling like the boards aren’t being set up for success. 

“It just sometimes seems like we are set up for failure,” she said. “When we should be supported in order to better support our communities and to ensure democracy, and all the business that we have to do is able to take place.”

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