May 10 2018

Boro residents urge city charter reforms (Queens Chronicle)

MinKwon Center for Community Action Executive Director John Park testifies before Mayor de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission last Thursday at the Flushing Library.

by Ryan Brady, Associate Editor 

According to two people who testified at the de Blasio administration Charter Revision Commission’s Queens public hearing last Thursday at the Flushing Library, the process of redrawing Council districts badly needs reform.

James Hong, former co-director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, mentioned the section of the charter that handles districting commissions. It says that the districting initiatives must guarantee “the fair and effective representation of the racial and language minority groups” the Voting Rights Act protects in the city.

Hong gave a couple of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the clause is realized in policy.

“First, amend the charter to restrict any former elected officials from serving on the districting commission,” he said. “ And second, amend the charter to eliminate the direct appointment of the districting commission members by current elected officials.”

In his own remarks to the charter panel, MinKwon Center Executive Director John Park also addressed the issue.

“There should be another layer, another independent type of commission, to appoint the people who are going to sit at the table,” he said.

Cesar Perales, the chairman of the revision commission, explained in response to Park’s testimony that the body will be considering redistricting policy.

“We are going to look at the question of how a redistricting commission is selected and whether or not there are other models that we might employ,” he said.

Redistricting was one of many issues that Queens residents testified about at the event, which is the third borough hearing; ones already had taken place in the Bronx and Staten Island. The Brooklyn hearing was held Monday; the Manhattan one was scheduled for Wednesday night after the Chronicle’s deadline.

Members of the commission in Flushing last week were picked by de Blasio. The focus of the body is looking at how the charter could be amended to strengthen city democracy.

The mayor earlier this month signed a bill for the Council to create its own Charter Revision Commission. That body, which will feature members appointed by de Blasio and other elected officials in addition to Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), has not been formed yet.

At the hearing in Flushing, three people called for changing the charter to tweak the rules for community boards. Each called for members of the panels to have term limits.

“If I join my community board today and stay on for 30 years, it’s unreasonable to expect that my views will reflect the values of society in 2048,” transportation activist Joby Jacob said.

John Kelly, a member of Community Board 11 who specified that he was speaking only on his own behalf, argued that term limits “check the cultures of the boards themselves.”

Perales said the revision commission had heard about community boards at its other hearings.

John Choe, who is on Community Board 7 but was not speaking as a board member in his testimony before the commissioners, also discussed the panels.

He pointed to demographic information, such as how Asians account for 52 percent of the population represented by CB 7 but only 38 percent of board members belong to the demographic.

Most of them — 54 percent — are white, despite just 26 percent of their constituents being white, he said.

According to Choe, a recent vote by the board — rejecting variances requested for a proposed nine-story health center in Flushing that would serve patients regardless of whether they have insurance — embodied the problem as it relates to his board.

When members voted on the proposal, the variance for parking was one of the most controversial pieces of the application. No spaces are in the plan, though Choe and others contended that the people who would be patients at the facility largely do not own cars.

“We cannot let another decade pass with hundreds of similar votes by unrepresentative community boards,” he said.

“At a minimum,” Choe added, term limits must be created for members of the panels.

In an interview with the Chronicle, CB 7 Chairman Gene Kelty pushed back against the idea.

Implementing the policy, he argued, would result in the board losing people with expertise that helps them make informed decisions as members.

Kelty also said there are other factors to consider in having a board that represents the community well. One he cited as important was having a panel whose members come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds that give them insights into community board matters.

Additionally, the CB 7 chairman said it’s important for a board to have members with their “eyes and ears” on the community’s issues: folks who pay attention to information like how often streets are served by trucks from the Department of Sanitation of New York.

Kelty said those factors are more important than the board having the exact ethnic composition as its constituency.

Besides, the CB 7 chairman pointed out, board members are not appointed for life as it stands now — people on the panels have to reapply every two years through their Council member’s office, and then be reappointed by the borough president.

With regard to his board’s vote against the nine-story health center, Kelty strongly denied that the decision showed in any way that the panel doesn’t represent the community at all.

“We follow the rules and we try to do the best we can,” he said.

One person who testified at last Thursday’s hearing called for the charter to be revised to rein in contributions to nonprofit organizations tied to politicians.

Reinvent Albany Senior Policy Advisor Alex Camarda mentioned to the commissioners how the city passed a law in 2018 limiting donations to the nonprofits to $400 — though the restriction applies only if 10 percent of the organization’s publicly available communications have the politicians visible in them.

“We believe that the donations should be limited moreso than they are currently, even if the public-facing communications do not feature the elected official,” he said. “However, we believe the limit could be higher than the current $400 doing business limit, but we do not have a specific number to recommend at this time.”