This column is inspired not so much about the ballot initiative itself, but the rhetoric used to argue against it, which I find problematic. It should be noted that when I refer to "the community board" in this particular column, I mean the entire system in the five boroughs, and I am speaking in my capacity as a private citizen.
In several op-eds and editorials, I have read borough presidents and other civic leaders argue that "developers would take over" and that we would lose all of our "institutional knowledge" that the board contains if term limits were enacted.
This logic is based on more than a few assumptions that I think are problematic and harmful to the way we think about civic engagement, democracy, and our roles as community members.
First, it assumes that the bulk of institutional knowledge present in a community has found representation on the board.
Each community board has 50 members who serve two-year terms. Unless there is a major issue, it seems to be general practice to reappoint community board members if they agree to it.
There are more than 50 people who are deeply involved and engaged in community work. They make up the boards of nonprofits, the membership of tenant associations, sports and recreation league participants, political clubs, volunteers with activist organizations, and PTAs.
Surely more than the 50 members on the board are participating, noticing, and staying engaged and informed every day on the issues in their community.
Additionally, it makes an assumption that all of the folks serving on the board are similarly engaged.
While I believe that the borough president takes engagement and involvement into account when appointing community board members, it's not like applicants need to take a test on knowledge of governmental processes, zoning, or even the story of the neighborhood.
The board is as much a place for teaching and learning as it is for expertise.
Secondly, it assumes that community knowledge is rigid and not transferable
As I wrote above, the community board should be a place for teaching and learning, as should many other places in the community.
As my readers know, I am heavily involved in advocacy organizations in our area. In every single one of them, I was welcomed and mentored by neighbors who were already involved.
Our community is at its best when we are nurturing new talent and harnessing new energy. I served on the board of a nonprofit here, and I can tell you that after 10 years I was losing steam and passion.
If we can keep our community board full of energy and passion, it will be more effective, more creative, and more positively involved.
There are plenty of opportunities for open public discussion and “experts” to weigh in on the issue. Who is to say that expert presentations couldn't be by former board members with knowledge of former issues in the community?
Who's to say that having a wider variety of folks pass through the board wouldn't increase not only the creative and dynamic solutions the board could present, but also further share our neighborhood's legacy?
There are a lot bigger threats to our neighborhood's historic knowledge than a community board term limit. For example, the poor maintenance and preservation of rent-stabilized housing, which physically displaces longtime community members.
Sharing our history and mentoring new talent is how our community will thrive and survive. It isn't a gemstone to be hoarded and protected, it's abundant and will be best served by true listening, questioning, and communal sharing.