A sweeping City Council candidates’ forum hosted by the Manhattan Beach Community Group last Wednesday touched on topics including stop-and-frisk, discretionary funding, and the overhaul of the Riegelmann Boardwalk. But the audience, which included active civic association leaders from around the district, was eager to question the candidates on their plans to wrestle some local control back from City Hall and back into the community.
The Democratic candidates vying to replace term-limited Michael Nelson in the 48th District fielded a volley of wonkish questions about Community Board reforms, community-based planning, and a potential dismantling of a city agency that many civic boards fault with turning a blind eye to over-development in the area.
The questions, drawn from the audience, tackled the Community Board early on, suggesting that it did not accurately reflect the demographics or geography of the neighborhood, as required by the City Charter. In the past, some civic leaders have expressed concern that areas like Manhattan Beach and Gravesend were over-represented when compared to membership drawn from Sheepshead Bay or Gerritsen Beach, and did not have enough black, Russian, Turkish or Asian-American members, all of which have sizable populations in Community Board 15.
Theresa Scavo, who has chaired the Community Board since 2008, said she’d seek to expand representation by basing it on Census figures.
“I believe that the Census should be taken, take a demographic breakdown, and it should be percentages on the Community Board,” she said.
She added that, as chair of the Board, she’s tried to diversify it, to no avail.
“I have letters going back from 2006 requesting certain people be considered for appointment on Community Board 15. My input means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one person I’ve ever recommended for Community Board 15 has ever been put on Community Board 15,” she said.
Community Board members are appointed by the Borough President at the recommendation of City Council members.
Candidate Natraj Bhushan also said he would turn to the Census. Chaim Deutsch and Ari Kagan both said they would seek to make the board more diverse, but did not elaborate.
Igor Oberman, an attorney and administrative law judge who briefly worked for Borough President Marty Markowitz, said the Board would become more diverse if its appointments were depoliticized and included a vetting process.
“The appointment process to the Community Boards is based on pure politics,” Oberman said. “There’s no vetting process here. And the diversity would come if the doors of opportunity were opened to the Community Boards.”
Although Community Board appointments are unpaid, volunteer positions, boards across the city are sometimes packed with political allies of the area’s council members. Some say it’s a way of ensuring support for land-use projects – one of the boards’ only official functions – like large developments in the district.
On the heels of Oberman’s answer, all of the candidates were asked how they would go about depoliticizing the process and to share their opinion on term-limits for board appointees.
Kagan said transparency would make the difference, requiring those appointed to the Board to do interviews, and provide public explanations for their appointment.
“Some people are on the Community Board and no one knows who they represent, what civic they volunteered for, who appointed them to the Community Board,” Kagan said. “Everyone should know who is this person and why [they were appointed].”
Deutsch said he wanted an independent process altogether, but didn’t elaborate on how that would work.
Oberman, who spoke on the question last, asked his opponents to pledge with him to create a public application and a process for transparency within 100 days of taking office. Scavo immediately agreed before the moderator squashed the opportunity for anyone else to answer.
On term limits, Scavo and Deutsch expressed concern that it would toss out good apples with bad apples.
“If you have board members that are there and following the processes and going to meetings and following up, and where you have various issues like zoning issues and they actually go down and look at the homes they’re having a hearing on – that person should stay,” said Deutsch.
“If that is a board member who is putting his time and energy as a volunteer to do the job, why do we want to throw them away because of term limits? What we need to do is look at the board members who do not come to meetings, do not participate at meetings [and not reappoint them],” said Scavo.
Bhushan gave full support to term limits, while Kagan, after the forum, said that he would consider term-limits depending on the length proposed.
Over the course of the forum, the topic switched from the Board’s membership to its powers. Community Boards are provisioned for in the New York City Charter, and act as advisory bodies to convey local sentiment to City Hall and its many agencies. One of the few formal powers it has is to review land use issues, including special applications to do construction outside of zoning regulations, and recommend to the City’s Department of Buildings and the Board of Standards and Appeals on whether or not the proposed project fits the neighborhood’s character.
Critics, several of which were in the forum’s audience, say that the City and State have shown a disregard for the Boards, often ignoring their recommendations.
One of the most egregious examples, according to critics, is the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), which often overrules the Community Board on development projects outside of zoning regulation.
Scavo said she would begin by taking the BSA’s five commissioner appointments out of the mayor’s hands.
“The mayor cannot appoint all five commissioners to the Board. It becomes a pro-development agency. I have been there and I have seen many, many times that they really just do rubber stamp certain projects as long as they consider it, ‘well, not that bad,'” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, the entire agency needs to be revamped, and there must be some way to elect the commissioners.”
Oberman offered no plan for reform, but did pledge to reform it nonetheless.
Kagan said that he would require the chairperson of the BSA to appear before Community Boards regularly and answer members’ questions about why their vote had been overruled on certain projects.
Deutsch, meanwhile, said that the Board’s vote had to count for more than just a recommendation, but truly be part of the approval process.
“The current state of the Community Board is that it is just advisory, so I would look to revamp the Community Boards and give them power so that when they say no, it would be a stronger no, not that when the Community Board says no, it goes to the BSA and the BSA does whatever it wants,” he said.
Scavo unveiled a similar plan earlier in the campaign, proposing that on matters such as zoning applications, liquor licenses, or drug rehabilitation centers, the Community Board’s vote ought to count as a point towards or against approval, with local legislators also being able to weigh in, and finally the City or State agency weighing in with a point. Such a system would provide a check-and-balance, ensuring that an agency could not steamroll community opposition, but also would not be a slave to NIMBY-ism.
Here are where the candidates stand on some of the other issues raised during the forum:
- Oberman said that not enough has been done by our elected officials. “I don’t call them lame ducks, I call them lame schmucks ’cause they haven’t done anything,” he said. However, he offered no plans.
- Kagan said Bloomberg did nothing about our area, and touted his connection to Congressman Hakeem Jeffries as one that would prove useful in getting federal funding for local recovery projects.
- Bhushan said he would expand on the outreach being done to better convey information to residents, including creating a website and using social media to list resources.
- Deutsch said he would fight to replenish sand to the area’s beaches, and forge relationships with the federal government to get funding.
- Scavo said there was a lot of planning, but very little doing happening at the moment. She would fight to have the sewer infrastructure upgraded to better hold stormwater, and also seek retractable flood gates around the waterfront.
- Bhushan said he supports participatory budgeting.
- So did Deutsch.
- So did Scavo.
- So did Oberman.
- Kagan did not say he would do participatory budgeting, but that he would publish the names of all groups he funded.
Stop-and-Frisk and the Community Safety Act
- Deutsch said he would not have voted for the Community Safety Act, and that reforming stop and frisk would threaten the public’s safety. He added that he did not support requiring police officers to wear lapel cameras to document their interactions with the public.
- Scavo said she would not have voted for the Community Safety Act, saying the stop and frisk has “been proven to stop crime.” On adding an Inspector General to the NYPD, she said she believes there is enough oversight of the NYPD.
- Oberman agreed that an Inspector General would be “just another bureaucrat,” and that the attacks on stop-and-frisk are just “election year politics.”
- Kagan called the bill the “Community Unsafety Act.”
- Bhushan spoke most forcefully on the issue, saying that, “If you’re for stop-and-frisk, then you’re for racial profiling,” – the comment which received the greatest applause of the night. However, he said that the reforms in the Community Safety Act do not eliminate stop-and-frisk, which can be done constitutionally, but are designed to curb racial profiling. He did not, however, support the appointment of an Inspector General.
Concrete Replacement of the Riegelmann Boardwalk
- Scavo said would stick with the original design, and use wood.
- Oberman agreed.
- Kagan said he supported an 80-percent-wood-to-20-percent-other-materials ratio, and claimed the current condition is “deplorable, disgusting.”
- Bhushan said he would stick with wood, and said the current problems are cause by the police department racing around on vehicles on the wooden planks.
- Deutsch said he supported a wooden boardwalk.
Garbage Issues On Commercial Streets
- Kagan said the problem is that the Sanitation Department’s budget has been cut 20 percent over the years, and he would fight to restore it.
- Bhushan said he would emphasize enforcement while also providing more public receptacles.
- Deutsch said he would eliminate or reduce carting fees for private businesses so that they would not be encouraged to dump illegally, and would also create a reward for identifying perpetrators or illegal dumpers.
- Scavo said she would allocate money for a basket truck in our local Sanitation garage, which does not currently have one. She added that she would also get regular power washing of the sidewalks.
- Oberman did not offer a proposal, but did ask what our current elected officials have done to ensure our streets are clean.
School Choice and Charter Schools
- Bhushan announced that he is working to file a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education for charter school co-locations, and said that charter schools deprive the public school system of resources.
- Deutsch said he’s against co-location, but supports charter schools.
- Scavo said she wants “neighborhood schools for neighborhood children, the way we had it growing up.” She spoke against charter schools and say we need to fix the public school system.
- Oberman used the opportunity to attack Kagan for supporting the United Federation of Teachers’ endorsement while alleging he supports tuition vouchers and charter schools.
- Kagan struck back, saying that he never said he supported vouchers, but supports tuition tax credits and educational tax credits, and is also against co-locations and standardized testing.