Community Boards Struggling With Attendance Look to Stronger Enforcement
To address the longstanding problem of maintaining good attendance, some leaders are cracking down so the boards can keep functioning.
Community board leaders in The Bronx are struggling to ensure their members fulfill their most essential task: showing up.
As one of the most direct connections between private citizens and city government, community boards have power — mostly advisory — over issues that directly affect neighborhoods. But if more than 50 percent of members fail to show up to a meeting, the board can’t vote due to lack of quorum.
Maintaining good attendance among the all-volunteer boards has always been a challenge, experts say. Now some leaders are cracking down on absenteeism in order to keep functioning.
Boards tend to tackle all kinds of local matters, from parking and traffic issues to liquor license approval. When it comes to time-sensitive processes such as land use decisions, any delay can be risky.
Slowdowns at the committee level can cause a hassle for anyone with business before the board. For example, Bronx Community Board 1’s Land Use Committee could not make a quorum in January, forcing at least one real estate developer to come back in February.
“Of course that presents a problem because all [land-use reviews] are timed, and they’re coming to the community board within the 30-day window before it gets to our office, then it goes to city planning,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson.
The five borough presidents, with input from City Council members and others, appoint the members of all community boards.
Community boards are now accepting applications. The deadline for The Bronx is March 3. For information about how and when to apply in every borough, see THE CITY’s guide.
At least one board has resorted to ejecting members with poor attendance records, but few can afford to lose anyone.
Bronx Community Board 6, which covers Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, and West Farms Square, voted in December to remove five of its 41 members due to poor attendance, according to District Manager Rafael Moure-Punnett. A sixth member resigned rather than being removed.
Moure-Punnett said the board could not make quorum at all for its September and November meetings. The October meeting began with quorum — but a member left while it was in progress and quorum was lost.
Board business was constrained for those months. Moure-Punnett mentioned that providing a letter of support for building a new breeding complex at the Bronx Zoo was delayed during the time. The board also issued an advisory opinion on redeveloping a section of East 178th Street but had to label it as being issued “without quorum.”
Moure-Punnett was concerned that this represented the board poorly to developers and other powerful entities.
“I don’t think the developer was saying that because we didn’t have quorum our opinion wasn’t valid, but it reduces the force of our advisory opinion when we don’t have a quorum to make that opinion,” he said.
By Community Board 6’s December meeting, arrangements had been made to vote on removing members, the district manager said, a rare and drawn-out process.
“We had never had a disciplinary committee before, but we formed a standing disciplinary committee to try to address issues with attendance,” Moure-Punnett explained.
Bylaws can vary among community boards. At CB6, members absent from three consecutive meetings or more than half the meetings in a year may be removed.
Moure-Punnett acknowledged that members are not being paid, but unless their attendance is reliable, he said, “the board is not able to do work for the community, especially in a community like Board 6 — an under-resourced community — and we need to be advocating for our community.”
Moure-Punnett is working on new strategies for recruitment, which included an event at Bronx Beer Hall on Feb. 1. He said that promoting the event on Instagram helped attract some much-welcomed younger people.
“A bunch of people came because they saw the Instagram ad. And they were young people in their 30s and early 40s,” Moure-Punnet said. “That was kind of eye-opening for me, because it was like, if I’m in a neighborhood where people don’t know what a community board is, I should be promoting it on Instagram, because people showed up.”
Each board typically has only two paid employees: a district manager and community assistant. All other participants, including the chairperson, are unpaid volunteers. Board members serve on staggered two-year terms, which means half must be reappointed or replaced every year.
Gibson, the Bronx borough president, said that when she and her colleagues select members, they emphasize attendance as a top factor. But “district managers and board chairs are the leaders, so we expect them to enforce the rules,” she told THE CITY.
Gibson noted that for boards meeting in person, such as CB5, “Even if you are on virtual, that does not count towards quorum.” On the other hand, members may attend over video for boards that are meeting entirely virtually.
City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, a Democrat representing the South Bronx, was district manager for the borough’s Community Board 2 from 2010 to 2016.
He remains a “big proponent,” Salamanca said in a phone interview: “I lean on my community board to tell me about the needs of that community.”
And he knows firsthand the importance of strong participation. “It’s a voluntary position, but you have power.”
He pointed to a time as district manager when his board shut down the liquor license for a topless entertainment venue that they felt was attracting crime to the neighborhood. The business closed down.
Without being an elected official, Salamanca emphasized, he and his board were able to bring about significant change.
“This is what I tell the board members: you have to be serious about this. If you’re not serious about it, then chances are it’s not for you. And it’s OK that it’s not for you. But if it is for you, and you’re gonna take it seriously, you have to be present. Meetings being virtually, it can’t get any easier than that.”
With board applications now open, Salamanca urged his fellow elected officials to step up their messaging as well.
“Now is the time that not just the borough president but Council members — as they’re appointing — to have conversations with these individuals who are applying or reappointing, and really look at their attendance,” he said. “And figure out, if they can’t make these meetings, maybe now’s not the time to be part of the board.”
Gibson echoed that while some unexpected absences are unavoidable, “This is not a lifetime appointment. You will not get reappointed if you don’t meet the obligations of a board member.”
Moure-Punnett said he welcomed the backing of elected officials when it comes to enforcing attendance policy. “I’m heartened to hear that that is the new attitude, because in the past, that has not been how things have happened on our board.”
He continued, “I had several members of my board — former members of my board — who had failed to show up to meetings since 2020. Now in 2020, COVID hit, several of my members stopped showing up to meetings, and then were reappointed to my board in 2022 after having not attended for two years. It raises the question, why did that happen?
“Some of my members asked me, why are they being reappointed by elected officials if they’re not attending meetings? I didn’t know what to say.”
Quorum and Consequences
Gibson listed some common obstacles to full participation, including work, school and childcare issues that became more complicated during the pandemic. She also added, “I’ve heard from a lot of older community board members, traveling in neighborhoods that are not safe has been a concern,” since some boards rotate between different meeting locations.
If the board’s business stalls, her office’s Community Boards Unit sometimes steps in to keep the process moving. On occasion, they have requested that the board “have an emergency meeting.” But she explained the unit only becomes involved at the full board level, not the committee level, where outside agencies first make contact.
Josh Dardashtian, president of Dash Real Estate Group, presented at the Bronx CB1 land use committee meeting in January that did not make quorum. The group asked him to come back the following month — and he successfully earned the committee’s support at the meeting on Feb. 8.
Dardashtian told THE CITY that the previous lack of quorum “hasn’t held us up in our timeline, so it’s OK.”
Angel Caballero is the new chairperson of Bronx Community Board 5, which did not make quorum for its November and December meetings, as THE CITY reported last month.
He said his board is back to normal now and that attendance for those months was likely low due to the holidays.
Caballero, who became chairperson on Jan. 25, following the resignation of longtime member Dr. Bola Omotosho, said he is confident that his board is functioning well and is looking to expand its membership. He pointed to the new application that is available online and in Spanish, saying it is now easier to recruit people who are enthusiastic and committed.
According to Caballero, frequent change and development in the community means that his board takes up voting items “almost every month,” making attendance a top requirement.
“Our board is a working board,” he said, noting that they are “making sure we’re tightening up on the attendance process.”
To Caballero, that means better enforcement of the current policy. The bylaws for CB5 are not posted on the board’s website, but Caballero explained that if a member has more than three unexcused absences, they can be removed.
Despite this policy, Caballero said he is reluctant to remove members due to poor attendance.
“It is a volunteer position,” he emphasized. “We want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”