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The value of local voices

Borough President Markowitz is certainly coming close to emulating President Bush’s firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in his dismissal of nine members of Community Board 6 for the sin of thinking independently about Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-development.

Indeed, in both cases, people lost important jobs because they contradicted the very elected officials who appointed them to their positions — positions where independence is a vital part of the job description.

New York’s 51 community boards — each comprised of 50 people with a stake in their neighborhoods — rarely make headlines, but they remain a vital cog in our democracy. While the board members’ role is only advisory, they are often the first people to whom residents turn when a sinkhole has opened up or, more important, when elected officials aren’t listening.

And they have a City Charter-mandated role in taking a first look at most development and land-use projects.

The boards typically represent a broad cross-section of their communities. Local business owners, homeowners, renters, developers, any number of special interests, senior citizens, newcomers, rich and poor — they are all represented on a good community board.

Atlantic Yards provides the perfect case-in-point for why these hardworking volunteers should be allowed to do their job without having to worry about hewing to some party line. In the rush to get the project approved before Gov. Pataki left office, many not-so-minor details were blown off:

Like traffic. Like transit. Like the project’s massive environmental impact. Like the use of state condemnation power to seize privately owned homes and turn them over to Ratner for private profit. Like the massive taxpayer-backed subsidies that virtually eliminate any risk and guarantee a handsome profit to Ratner.

On all these issues (and others) independent-minded community board members bucked the elected officials who lined up like ducks behind Ratner and pointed out genuine flaws in the project.

The fact that SOME of these flaws were later remedied speaks volumes about the importance of independent thinking.

Borough President Markowitz shamefully denied that his dismissals were linked to the ousted board members’ opposition to Atlantic Yards, but many members of Community Board 6 spoke out about the Beep’s increasing vindictiveness towards anyone who bucks him when Ratner’s business is at stake.

The image of Markowitz shouting at community board members is quite in contrast to the sweetness-and-light he projects to the general public, a cheerleader-in-chief who wants you to think that Atlantic Yards has no critics — even as he silences them.

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Councilman Bill DeBlasio, who gets to nominate a handful of board members, pending the borough president’s approval, dismissed one opponent of Atlantic Yards, telling this newspaper that he did so because, in his view, her vote against Atlantic Yards was a vote against affordable housing.

While DeBlasio tried to appear candid and reasonable, his reasoning is flawed. As this newspaper has noted, the “affordable housing” component of Atlantic Yards is a sham: the below-market-rate units are being created with tax subsidies that line Bruce Ratner’s pocket, and a far-less-dense alternative proposal included MORE affordable units.

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Turnover on community boards — like any leadership position — isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and giving different citizens the opportunity to serve on the boards is reason enough to make changes. But to target individuals because their opinon on a specific project is different from the official who appoints them is wrong.

The community board is supposed to be a place for free expression, not the mouthpiece of our elected officials — who have plenty of oportunities to make their voices heard.

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