A glaringly obvious practicality eliminates many potential community board candidates from the start: Membership requires attending multiple evening meetings per month.
The Charter requires that Boards act through public meetings, and that members substantially attend these meetings. Counting the full board and two subcommittees, this equals about six hours a month at meetings alone, and maybe another few hours writing minutes, prepping, or doing research.
Over 10 months, that’s 60-to-70 hours of unpaid 'work,' almost all of it in the evenings. Who has this much free time, let alone at night????
The answer to this question explains the stereotypes, and why certain groups are 'over-represented,' at least anecdotally, among Board members. Here are some groups that have the free time:
- Retirees and/or Seniors. They have more time on their hands, and fewer family or job concerns. They can have a long perspective and history with the community, and work hard on social issues, like crime prevention and health care. But seniors also can be a conservative check against too much innovation or change.
- Perma-Locals. People who don’t have to leave their community during the day, whether because they work locally or do not work at all, simply have an easier time making meetings. But they can lack a sense of the greater city, and how things might be done elsewhere.
- Car Owners. If you don’t have to rely on public transit to attend far-flung meetings, you can get to them more easily. But the ‘windshield perspective’ on livable streets issues can be difficult to avoid.
These people have the time to make the meetings, to speak up and be heard. That's all it means.
Think about the groups who do not have the free time, whom the evening meeting stricture ‘under-represents’ or excludes:
- Parents. If you have young children, with early bed times, even with help from a spouse/partner/caregiver, making every meeting is tough. But the parent’s voice is also the child’s voice, and both need to be heard in board deliberations
- Office Workers. People who work until 6 or 7, or who work evening hours, cannot attend. But many times, these are the most highly skilled (and compensated) members of our communities. They have the most talents to lend, and the most money to spend: shouldn’t a board take their perspective into account?
- Commuters. People whose jobs or commitments take them out of the District regularly, again, cannot reliably attend evening meetings. Anyone with a Midtown job finds service on outer borough boards difficult. But the change of daily atmosphere can provide a valuable perspective on one’s home district.
- Non-drivers. Even if you get back to the district early enough, regularly enough to make meetings, the districts can be so large, and the meeting locations spread out enough, to make timely attendance difficult. This is especially true where public transit and the bike infrastructure is still lacking; the very people who are probably most frustrated by that lack cannot get to the meeting to complain about it!
These people do NOT have the free time to make the meetings, and thus do not have the forum to speak and be heard. But are their voices any less valuable or legitimate? Of course not.
Lumped together, I would argue that this latter group of people—who choose to put down roots, raise their kids, commute to their jobs, and build a life in a particular neighborhood—is exactly the group I would want determining that neighborhood’s future. Yet, these very people are often excluded from Board service by the nature of the system, or at best severely under-represented.
There are of course exceptions, but too often, the people with the qualities you would most want on your Community Board lack the time to devote through the required personal attendance. That leaves the rest of us running the show, and it can make for some lopsided outcomes.
Next post: some suggested strategies for those of you with the qualifications to be a Board member, but not the time.