In my , I detailed some of the filters that prevent otherwise qualified community leaders from joining or serving on Community Boards: they don’t get appointed, or they don’t have the time. Today I want to suggest some ways to get around these constraints, and contribute.
So you might be interested in participating in a Community Board. I recommend dipping your toes in the water of Board service by joining Subcommittees. The Charter permits “persons with a residence or significant interest in the community who are not members of the board” to serve on .
You might think a more logical starting point would be the monthly full Board meetings. This is a mistake. Full Board meetings have packed agendas, many people who need to speak, and not enough time to do it all. For an uninitiated spectator, they can be a chaotic waste of an evening, and a turn-off.
But the more intimate, more participatory atmosphere of a Subcommittee teaches more about the Board, and the District.
Subcommittees are where the real work is done. Individuals with an affinity for that Subcommittee’s topic can go into depth, have a real conversation, and parse out the issues in sometimes fascinatingly insightful ways (and sometimes in mind-numbing detail). The tradition and institutional knowledge of lifelong residents collides with the fresh insight of new kids on the block, creating sparks of action and gently bending perspectives.
Furthermore, having a vote on Subcommittee business can be powerful. Subcommittees are generally small—maybe a dozen people at a given meeting. Suppose you want the stop sign on your corner changed to a traffic light. Your first step is to get a majority of your Board’s Transportation committee to support your position. In the intimate world of the Subcommittee, this could mean a literal handful of people—5 or 6—and your proposal becomes a motion before the full Board.
There, of course, only the 50 appointed Board members can vote on your motion, but in my experience, Boards rarely second-guess Subcommittee motions. Wide deference is granted to the work done in Subcommittee. Your traffic light request will be ratified, and all you really had to do was convince the majority of Subcommittee members.
Finally, you only have to deal with your Subcommittee’s issues and members. If you like Education issues, you never have to care about liquor licenses; if you want to put in bike lanes, you don’t need to hear about affordable housing. You can attend as frequently or infrequently as is convenient for you. You don’t need any elected official’s sanction to pitch in. You slip around the constraints that bind full Board members and keep you off the Board, and contribute anyway.
Stay Informed, Stay Connected, Stay Committed
People lose patience very easily with Community Boards, the rigorous schedule, people with intolerable views, and the parliamentary pettifogging. Many people who join want to shake things up right away, want to change the way things work. When it doesn’t happen immediately, they disappear. Don’t be that person. Slow and steady wins this race.
If you can’t participate, at least stay informed: sign up for email alerts from the District Manager, read the local blogs, follow that micro level of news. Some day, something incredibly important to you will be on the table.
Suppose a bar goes before the Permits Subcommittee for permission to keep its backyard open for parties with amplified sound until 4 AM on weekdays. Notice of the meeting and the request is duly published, and picked up by sites like Patch.
Would you rather find out after the fact, and fight to reverse the permission? Or would you rather attend the Subcommittee meeting on this topic, and argue against it? Surely it would be better to know beforehand and head it off at the meeting; but all too often, we hear from people who simply did not know about the meeting, and now suffer the consequences.
If you can’t get involved with the Board, get involved with your block association, or join a local chapter of an advocacy organization that deals with an issue you are passionate about. Offer to be the liaison between that group and the Community Board—often it just means forwarding emails or putting up flyers. Getting the word out, in a city as diverse and busy as this, can be an oddly difficult task.
But remember: Community Boards are the chance for local people who care about their community to have a say in what goes on in it and what direction it takes. You can make a difference, by devoting just a few hours a month. That’s a small price to pay for the privilege of participation.
Other Community Board Posts by Rob Witherwax: