De Blasio voices support for community boards in face of charter revision

New York’s new public advocate is already building bridges to community boards, in anticipation of joint efforts on issues of local importance as well as on the broad question of how any revision of the City Charter might impact both his and their role in city government.

To that end, Bill de Blasio, who assumed the public advocate position a little over a month ago, stopped by during the February meeting of Community Board 14 to assure board members of his support as they move forward.

“I believe the citizen role in government is always a priority,” de Blasio told the group gathered in the auditorium of Public School 249, Caton Avenue and Marlborough Road. “I believe it’s one of the most cost-efficient things we do. And, the fact that, year in and year out, community boards are slated for cuts, to me is undemocratic.

“I think community boards are one of the best bargains in the whole city government in terms of the amount of money we invest versus what we get back,” de Blasio went on, to loud applause.

“They need to be able to run their operations and reach out to the community,” he stressed.

The city’s 59 community boards – each made up of 50 volunteers appointed by the borough president and local councilmembers, and a small district office staff who handle residents’ complaints, among other things — represent the most local level of city government. There are 18 in Brooklyn, and, in recent years, each has had a budget of around $200,000, to cover staff, rent and office expenses.

However, the budget axe is slated to descend on the boards, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposing a total cut of approximately $40,000– in two increments — to kick in by the start of the next fiscal year.

That, plus rumors about recommendations weakening community boards that might emerge from the charter revision panel appointed by the mayor, has board members and staff on tenterhooks, and happy to hear de Blasio’s avowal of support, which followed by less than a week, an equally impassioned statement of support on the part of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. The borough president positions are also rumored to be potential targets of the charter revision commission.

Beyond budget matters, de Blasio also emphasized the importance of the community board’s role in land use issues. “I ran on a platform of getting more community voice into the planning process,” he noted.

The public advocate, de Blasio added, “has a seat on the City Planning Commission” which votes on zoning matters as part of the city’s public review process. However, he stressed, “I don’t think a seat on the City Planning Commission is worth much if you just think about the end result of the process.

“I think what matters is the front end of the process when a community first engages an issue and decides what kind of community benefits it needs that would make that particular development work for the community. As you have planning issues come along, I’d like to be an ally, I’d like to bring some additional value to the process,” de Blasio said.

In response, CB 14 Chairperson Alvin Berk invited de Blasio to, “A dialogue at some time in the future about the role of community boards.

With respect to strengthening boards’ roles in land use, Berk told de Blasio, “One concern we have is that we don’t want it to come at the expense of our ability to influence the budget priorities of the local district

“Nor,” Berk added, “do we want it to diminish our ability to help the city with service delivery. We have had ample demonstrations many times of the utility of community board input in service delivery and the value of monitoring service delivery. What we are concerned about is that if there is an untoward emphasis on land use, narrowing our role, it may ultimately diminish the efficacy and value of community boards.”

De Blasio said he “absolutely commit(s) to that dialogue,” and stressed that it is important that community board members andall of us who have been involved in local government to get our two cents in.

“If community boards have a clear idea of what role they would like to play going forward,” he added, “what would enhance the meaning of the work, it’s important that there be maximum public involvement.”