Assembly Required: Bronx Community Board Struggles to Make Quorum
The volunteer bodies often play a crucial advisory role in local decision-making, but that only works if they can form a quorum.
After going two months without more than half of its members present at meetings, Bronx Community Board 5 finally reached a quorum and got some official business done, including electing its officers, this Wednesday.
Fewer than 19 of its 37 members attended the November and December general board meetings at CB5 — which includes parts of Fordham, University Heights, Morris Heights and the Mount Hope neighborhoods — longtime chair Dr. Bola Omotosho told THE CITY. That meant that the board could not vote on anything on its agendas or elect its 2023 board officers or respond to requests for letters of support, including for an affordable housing project.
Community boards, whose members are volunteers, have no official powers but often play key roles in influencing major land use decisions, driving support for development and weighing in on rezoning projects. They also play a part in the liquor license approval process, and often help their local City Council member determine where discretionary spending goes.
In addition to board officer elections, major items on the agenda for November and December that had to be put off included a discussion of an affordable housing project at 103-107 Tremont Avenue and a presentation from the Bronx Community Foundation on its work with cannabis businesses and education, which was postponed at the last minute.
Every board must have a quorum of more than half of its members to officially convene or vote on any items.
Normally, CB5, which holds meetings on the fourth Wednesday of every month, shifts those meetings to the second Wednesday in November and December to accommodate holiday travel plans. Omotosho added that, over his 16 years as board chair, he recalled a few other meetings where enough members didn’t show up to meet quorum.
“Maybe one meeting here or there but typically not back-to-back,” said Omotosho, a clinical researcher in infectious disease.
‘Why Show Up To a Meeting?’
City Councilmember Pierina Sanchez — a former member of CB5 who now represents the community district in Council — told THE CITY in a text message Wednesday that her office had made calls before January’s meeting to help ensure quorum was met this time.
“Of course we struggle with participation, CB5 is categorically one of the lowest-income, most impacted communities when it comes to poverty, inequality, health outcomes, barriers to educational attainment, economic opportunity and more,” Sanchez wrote.
“Folks on the board may be facing a decision on whether to go to their 2nd job or join a meeting,” her message continued. “And broadly speaking, there may be a profound sentiment among board members (as with neighborhood residents writ large) with respect to government’s inattention to/lack of investment in our community, so why show up to a meeting? Many factors can be at play.”
Asked about CB5’s difficulties in assembling a quorum, Michael Ivory, spokesperson for The Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, told THE CITY that several board members were dealing with health issues, without saying how many members.
“Part of the challenge is that some of the Community Boards have resumed in-person meetings, which can be difficult for folks with health complications and other issues that prevent them from attending,” said Ivory in a written statement.
The borough president appoints every community board member across The Bronx and is responsible for overseeing hundreds of applications. Until this year, applications in The Bronx had to be hand-written and notarized.
This year, that process was digitized for the first time, and applications were also offered in Spanish. The deadline for Bronx residents to apply is March 3.
Previous reporting by THE CITY in 2020 showed that, overall, boards are typically more male than the districts they serve. Boards in The Bronx sometimes are more white than the neighborhoods they represent, though that does not apply to the diverse membership in CB5. In Manhattan, Hispanics, renters and young people were missing from the CB member ranks.
Dilletta Pina, a volunteer for the city’s Community Emergency Response Teams, said at Wednesday’s meeting that she recently applied to become a board member.
“I filled it out. It’s so user-friendly. It was so easy to do. And more importantly, I got a reply immediately letting me know that it was received,” Pina said.
CB5 is one of three community boards in The Bronx that has been holding in-person meetings, according to Ivory, from the borough president’s office. Eight others have been meeting virtually, while another is using a hybrid model. A state law first passed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and renewed last year, allows government bodies to forgo in-person meetings as a public health measure.
Board member Nanette Matthews says she prefers in-person meetings because people are not “fully engaged” in virtual or hybrid settings.
At CB5’s full board meeting Wednesday evening, the 22 members in attendance voted in new leaders including board member Angel Caballero as the new chair. Omotosho is stepping down as chair after 16 years, though he said he’ll continue to be involved “in any capacity that I can still serve my community” after 25 years as a board member.
Members then discussed whether or not to write a letter in support of a supportive housing project at 1760-68 Jerome Ave. The project, spearheaded by ACMH, a group specializing in constructing supportive housing, would have most of its 175 units reserved for those who have experienced homelessness and mental illness.
CB5 voted down the project 9-6, with seven abstentions, after several members expressed concerns about the high number of studio apartments and what they said was a lack of clarity about income eligibility.