In , I discussed systemic flaws in Community Boards. This week, we’ll pause the flaw discussion and look at what qualities a good Board member, and an ideal board, should have.
Remember that Community Board members are volunteers. They get no compensation, but spend a great deal of time and energy on community work, amid a lot of frustration. What type of person would, and should, take on this role? What makes a good Community Board member?
First, they must be above reproach. They hold amateur, as opposed to professional, status in the world of city politics. Their judgment as unsalaried appointees should be less suspect for ulterior motives or political posturing, than salaried, elected officials in similar circumstances would be. Members should not call this amateur status into question by pushing their financial self-interest or advancing their political careers.
Most members should be relatively ordinary: their primary expertise should arise from their daily life and exposure to their community. They should spot hyper-local social problems (drug dealing on the corner, an unloved park) and demonstrate community organizing and leadership abilities to confront or solve the problems (neighborhood watch, monthly clean-up efforts). The proverbial ‘squeaky wheel’, their ‘reward’ is appointment to the Board. (That’s essentially the story of my appointment!)
This local focus should be mixed with perspicacity. A member’s interest in the District may initially extend only to what she sees from her front stoop. But once on the Board, she can remain a "one-issue wonder," or she can expand her portfolio, learn about the rest of the District, and lend her efforts toward other issues. A strong Board needs both near- and far-sighted members, both foxes and hedgehogs.
Some specialized knowledge is valuable, as my last post showed. One or two architects, business owners, healthcare professionals, attorneys, etc. bring authority to more complex topics. However, the entire Board should not be technocrats and policy wonks: the ordinariness gets lost.
As for overall composition, the Charter says:
“The borough president shall assure adequate representation from the different geographic sections and neighborhoods [and] shall consider whether the aggregate of appointments fairly represents all segments of the community.”
I read this, especially the vague term "segments," to mean that each Board should ideally reflect the District’s various constituencies, its mix of ages, races, genders, and professions. A Board well-stocked with such variety of viewpoints would better understand and address the needs of the entire District, would leave less out, and would speak with a more legitimate voice.
In sum, all Board members should be honest, every-day community members. They each should instinctually understand some or all of the District, and may bring an extra something special. Taken together, the entire membership should reflect the District’s diversity. It’s an Athenian model, really: 50 Solons whose individual talents and collective wisdom lead us in the right direction.
I sound awfully self-satisfied, and to a certain extent I am: I am very proud of the work my fellow Board members and I accomplish on behalf of the community. And I sincerely feel that most Board members possess the qualities described above.
Are we all perfect all the time? Of course not – Board experience the same tribulations as any other organization. For instance, it can seem 10% of the people do 90% of the work, or some people only come to meetings when the weather is good.
And conflicts of interest do arise: a local bar owner/board member might try to torpedo competition by voting against other liquor licenses, or board members bitten by the political bug can conflate their duties as members with their electoral agendas. But for the most part, when these conflicts arise, they are obvious, and the board addresses them properly.
I find that when difficulties arise, they arise less from who IS on the board, and more from who is NOT on it. More on that mysterious proposition next week…