Until C.B. 3 is fixed, L.E.S. has no democracy
BY DIEM BOYD | A vigorous democracy is what we deserve but not necessarily what we get. These days, our democracy is slipping away, skating perilously close to a full-blown plutocracy.
As wealth and power narrow political options, people have become increasingly alienated and have even dropped out of the political process entirely. Yet, the lifeblood of any healthy democracy is civic engagement, i.e., the right of ordinary citizens to determine the public good, set policies that seek the good, and reform institutions that stifle that pursuit. This right is the cornerstone of a democratic society.
New York City’s 59 community boards serve as our most immediate and local form of government. These boards were envisioned as a mechanism to empower communities — and, by definition, they must give ordinary citizens a real voice in shaping the development and character of their own neighborhoods.
Setting aside the fact that community boards are comprised of individuals appointed by the Manhattan borough president and city councilmembers, community boards were intended to be the most effective and available structure for local citizens to participate in the political process in a significant way. However, when residents feel that they have no place at the table at this most entry level of the body politic, they must find alternative ways to participate in the political process, or continue to call for substantive reform.
Many people living on the Lower East Side have become frustratingly disconnected from their community board process and have been obliged to redirect their concerns to their elected politicians, who, while often sympathetic, are more removed from and less engaged with the actual burning issues that affect community residents’ lives. Essentially, citizens have been bumped back one step in the pecking order — in a sense, one step removed from the actual structure that should enable them to participate in the full expression of their own community.
Elected politicians have been able to address issues that have been of concern to individual community residents. Earlier this year, Councilmember Margaret Chin helped a resident settle a Department of Environmental Protection nuisance problem and helped press for the correction of major street-condition issues outside a property falling into disrepair. She also helped a small business owner quickly get back into operation by intervening with the agency that had been unreasonably holding up permits.
Another example is when, at the request of residents, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver convinced the Police Department to return the streets to community residents by reopening Ludlow, Essex and Rivington Sts. to traffic in the late evenings.
Each of these interventions occurred as a result of swift action taken by our local elected leaders. Unfortunately, the sheer number of constituents makes it an impossible task for our representatives to address every person’s individual concerns.
An exemplary instance of the way democracy should function is when, on April 27, state Senator Daniel Squadron hosted a well-attended Community Convention. Here, residents of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn had access to and dialogue with a key political representative.
That afternoon, many residents were able to voice their concerns and suggest solutions to a host of urgent problems in their community. The essential benefit of this kind of public forum is the promotion of an active democracy — one more complicated and perhaps less predictable, but one that holds a directly elected representative accountable to his or her individual constituents.
The April 27 convention not only gave a voice to those already active though previously unheard, it was also a call for all citizens to actively engage in their communities rather than stand idly by until the next election or give up hope in the political system entirely. More opportunities for in-person interaction — following the example of the Squadron’s Community Convention — will help to bring elected officials closer to their constituents.
Any impediment to direct political access breaks the connection between voter and representative. In this city where a layered governmental system empowers appointed, non-elected representatives as the most powerful link between voters and elected officials, it is essential that the operation of that intermediary body be scrutinized to ensure transparency, integrity and bona fide community representation.
When these intermediary bodies — community boards — become entrenched with insulated operations, such as the manipulation of both community district bylaws and board composition, all efforts to challenge the status quo, no matter how justified or pressing, are rendered DOA.
This serves to concentrate the power of the board at the expense of the community at large. The end result is that the a priori function of government — to serve the public interest — has basically evaporated.
Wall St. might seem an unlikely place to dig for a solution, but a recent trend there is instructive. So-called activist investors have been effective in shaking up stagnant, entrenched corporate boards. The activists have taken control of boards at several major publicly traded companies. These reinvigorated companies have yielded more competitive returns by virtue of having made tough decisions that replaced those people and practices that had stunted the companies’ growth and bottom line.
Activist investors have justifiably rebranded themselves as shareholder advocates. Playing the “shareholder watchdog” role, they press for change among the boards of directors of underperforming corporations. These bad boards have arranged the corporate bylaws and capital structure so as to perpetuate their own vested financial interest at the expense of broad shareholder interest. Activist investors challenge these entrenched boards and ultimately dislodge them.
With income gaps continuing to widen across the nation, it is hard to be a cheerleader for hedge funds and Wall St., but the private-sector lesson here shouldn’t be ignored. Substitute communities for corporations, community boards for corporate boards and active community residents for activist investors and we have a template that might reverse the ossification of insulated community boards, therein reconstituting these bodies as the true advocates for the communities they represent.
The failures seen on the Lower East Side are not inherent to the nature of community boards. Rather they result from practices and vested interests unique to this neighborhood. Other community districts have shown that a community board can function as a powerful body that advocates solely on behalf of community residents.
It’s clear that the raison d’être of each district’s community board is to heed and respect the voices of the community, so that neighborhood issues from “A” to “Z” are settled most beneficially for all — not in a way that benefits a particular special or vested interest.
Put another way, appointed, non-elected boards must represent the community instead of elected officials or special interests, especially financial ones.
With entrenched policies and an exclusive rather than inclusive culture, Community Board 3 has been unable to exert a balanced representation of this community.
C.B. 3 must focus on rebuilding trust with the public by encouraging robust, innovative ways to give citizens a way back and access to decision making within the existing system. An imperfect system has to be made better in order to restore democracy to the Lower East Side.
Boyd is founder, LES Dwellers