Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson has extended the deadline for residents to join community boards by almost two weeks after THE CITY reported that several boards in the borough have struggled in recent months to assemble enough members to conduct business, even as several boards began holding online or hybrid meetings during the pandemic.
The borough president is responsible for selecting the members of the borough’s board, who are unpaid and hold no up-down voting powers but whose advisory recommendations are often influential in major decisions around land use, development, small business licensing, local street designs and much more.
Gibson slipped the news of the extension into her first State of the Borough speech, delivered on Wednesday night at Manhattan College in Riverdale. In it, she also highlighted recent development projects in the borough and promised to bring a birthing center to The Bronx, where Black women have significantly higher maternal mortality rates than white women.
And, she said, the deadline for Community Board applications would be pushed back to March 15, from March 3, “because we want to make sure that this process is truly open to all” — noting that the borough now had a digital application for the first time, and that can now be filled out in English or Spanish.
The Bronx has 12 community boards, each representing as many as 250,000 people. The boards can have as many as 50 volunteer members each, along with a paid district manager.
In a statement on Thursday, Michael Ivory, a spokesperson for the borough president, said the extension was meant “to give interested candidates more time to apply.” As of Friday evening, at least 270 people have submitted applications thus far, he said in a phone call then. In 2022, the office received 500 applications.
Gibson’s office has used kiosks, different types of media and outreach at schools to promote the application and recruit potential candidates, along with asking current members and district managers to spread the word, spokesperson Arlene Mukoko told THE CITY in a statement on Friday.
“Adding additional days supports that by allowing those unaware that the application process had begun, the opportunity to access it before the new deadline,” Mukoko said. “We want as many applications as possible. We do not have a limit. We want everyone to apply.”
Gibson’s move to extend the application period came after Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso pushed the deadline in that borough back to February 23 from February 14.
‘This Thing Can’t Continue Indefinitely’
Getting members to show up has been a struggle in wide swaths of the borough.
Community Board 5 — which includes Fordham, University Heights, Morris Heights and Mount Hope — failed to reach quorum in February for the third time in the last four months. Just to the East at Community Board 6, which includes Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont and West Farms Square, members failed to reach quorum in September and November. They voted in December to meet virtually over the next three months, saying that shift was to mitigate the threat of the flu season.
“This thing can’t continue indefinitely,” former CB5 chair Dr. Bola Omotosho told THE CITY on Thursday. He said that only 15 of 38 members showed up in February, meaning even fewer showed up than in November and December when they also missed quorum. “People are not too enthusiastic about building the capacity to be on the board.”
Omotosho, a 25-year board member who stepped down as chair last month after 16 years in that role, was hopeful that new applicants could fill that enthusiasm gap, saying he personally knows three residents who have already completed the application and noting that the new online system lowered the bar to entry.
Community Boards 8, representing Fieldston, Kingsbridge, Kingsbridge Heights, Marble Hill, Riverdale, Spuyten Duyvil, and Van Cortlandt Village, and 11, representing Allerton, Indian Village, Morris Park, Pelham Gardens, Pelham Parkway, Van Nest, both had committee meetings that failed to meet quorum.
“We’ll post on our social media. We’ll recruit through our newsletter. We will remind board members to encourage people to join the board,” said CB8 chair Laura Spalter, who has been on the board for 30 years and served as chair for the last three, about what her board intended to do to boost its membership and meeting attendance.
Asked if there is enough interest across community boards to join, CB11 district manager Jeremy Warneke told THE CITY “there’s not,” saying that’s been an issue for the past decade.
Warneke, who has been district manager for 12 years, said he wasn’t concerned about the borough president extending what he sees as an arbitrary application deadline, since the borough president by statute can appoint a board member at any time, as Staten Island does.
He expressed frustration, however, about members being reappointed after June 1—the deadline set by the City Charter for a member to serve without being reappointed at the end of their two-year term. (Those terms are staggered, so that half the board needs to be reappointed or replaced each year.)
CB11 members have been appointed after that deadline in the past, he said, adding that he would remove any members whose terms end without a reappointment going forward.
CB6 district manager Rafael Moure-Punnett told THE CITY that late appointments can make it more difficult to provide both newcomers and returning members with proper training sessions. He said several members were appointed in September and October last year—after the community board’s work has already begun.
“I need all the appointments in by a certain date so I can do a training, or several trainings, for all of my new members all at once. And if they come in in a staggered fashion, it’s gonna be very difficult to do that,” he said.
“That may have happened last year because we were interviewing late,” said Mukoko, the spokesperson for the borough president, suggesting that wouldn’t be an issue this year, since “we are starting interviews now and the whole electronic portal makes it much more efficient.”
Lost in Translation
While residents can now apply in Spanish, not a single person has done so thus far, according to Mukoko, who noted that Gibson had promoted the new option on an appearance on Telemundo and would do so again on an appearance on BronxNet thisweek.
But an application alone won’t bridge the language issue, said Moure-Punnett, the CB6 board manager, who said there’s little reason for people who speak Spanish primarily or exclusively to apply unless the city pairs them with supportive services.
“Many community boards have expressed to the city over the years the need for translation services at our board meeting,” said Moure-Punnett. “To hire a professional translator and to bring all the equipment to do simultaneous translation is expensive, and if the city is not going to provide resources to boards, specifically for translation, then boards do not have the ability to provide bilingual board meetings and bilingual committee meetings.”
CB6 has one Spanish-only speaker on its board, whose daughter serves as their translator during meetings. While Moure-Punnett is capable of translating, he said it doesn’t work logistically.
“In theory, I can do it. I speak Spanish, but I can’t — a board meeting is already two hours long in the evening. So, I’m not going to make it a four-hour meeting by doing the entire thing in two languages at once, right? I would need someone else to translate simultaneously,” he said.
“We agree that language access is important. If an individual requests translation services at a public meeting, the Board is responsible to provide that,” Mukoko said in her statement. “In addition, the Civic Engagement Commission is offering guidance on translation services. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOYA) is another resource offering translation services.”
‘Don’t Stand Across the Street With Your Tools’
Boards have also struggled to draw in younger new members as long-time older ones eventually leave.
Richard Sherman, a longtime member of Community Board 2, representing Hunts Point, Longwood and parts of Morrisania, told THE CITY that he’d decided not to apply for reappointment this year.
“I’m turning 77, and I really think it’s time, you know? I’ve been on the community board since I think 2007,” he said, adding that he no longer lives in the area and doesn’t often visit—“especially with COVID.”
Sherman added that it’s really time for young people to really step aboard,” noting that “teenagers who are part of community-based organizations could be encouraged to be involved,” since any New Yorker 16 or up is eligible.
“Otherwise, you know, it’s just gonna drag on.”
That won’t be easy, he said, but it’s necessary. “I think it’s gonna take time, I think a lot of advertising, and community-based organizations really should step up and talk about it.”
But at least one Bronxite, 35-year-old Jordan Green, has been frustrated so far in trying to volunteer his time and energy.
Originally from Harlem, Green moved into The Bronx in 2020, and lives and works in Port Morris, where the communications agency he owns, Exit 18 Creative Co, is based.
Green was enthusiastic about getting established in his new neighborhood, applying last winter to join CB1, which represents Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Melrose.
He was told he would hear back by that April, Green told THE CITY, but “they didn’t even tell me that I wasn’t selected.”
He then began attending some virtual meetings as a non-member, but didn’t feel particularly welcomed. He said he was turned off by “how disorganized they were, how they couldn’t even kick the meeting off correctly.”
Green said he also tried reaching out to some members via LinkedIn but was ignored.
Despite some apprehension, he reapplied for CB1 in late January and now has an interview scheduled on Tuesday.
On why he decided to reapply, Green said, “I live by the quote, ‘If you really want to renovate a building, don’t stand across the street with your tools.’”