How Elected Community Councils Can Make New York City Government More Democratic and More Responsive

How Elected Community Councils Can Make New York City Government More Democratic and More Responsive

by Jerry Kann—–Green Party candidate for New York City Council in District 22—–Astoria, Queens

June 23, 2005

The basic idea of the Community Councils is not new. Other members of the Green Party have proposed it, and probably all political parties in New York have put the idea forward at some time in the past. But it first struck me as a change that is absolutely necessary for New York City in 2001, during the battle over new power plants in Astoria and Long Island City. There were many public hearings on the proposed plants. Sometimes hundreds of residents showed up, almost all of them saying very emphatically that they did not want the power plants in this area. Yet somehow every single one of the proposed power plants was approved by the state government—as if the wishes of Astoria and LIC residents meant nothing at all. This made me angry. It still does.

I know many people will dismiss this as just the usual griping on the theme of “not in my backyard.” No one wants an air-polluting power plant in their neighborhood—or a waste transfer station, or a sewage treatment plant. So we are told that somebody has to make this sacrifice, and we’re scolded like children for objecting to the city’s or the state’s plans. But it is almost always the same people who are expected to make sacrifices. Usually, although not always, it is poor people in poor neighborhoods. One example is the sewage treatment plant on the Hudson, in West Harlem. While the public park that tops off the plant and overlooks the river is very pretty, the powerful odor from plant is still something no one would want near their home. Yet somehow the plant was dumped on the relatively disadvantaged inhabitants of West Harlem and not on the well-to-do residents of the Upper West Side.

We have seen this happen time and again in New York, as for instance with the small power generators based in West Queens and the South Bronx, areas with very high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. As for Astoria, a relatively middle-class area, residents get the shaft from power plants because the old infrastructure for the plants is here and has been here for over a hundred years. Naturally it would cost billions to build new infrastructure in other parts of the city. But shouldn’t that be the cost of doing business for the extremely profitable electric power industry? Why must the people in Astoria pay the price in terms of negative impact on their health and safety?

If New York had elected “Community Councils” based in City Council districts, city residents would have more direct say-so and oversight on important matters that affect their health, their safety, their level of taxation, and other things that directly affect their lives.

The Current Community Boards Are Insufficient

Most of the members of the Community Boards are decent, well-intentioned people who care about the neighborhoods they serve. Also, their staffs are generally made up of competent, responsible people who probably should be kept on under any new system we set up. But the current Community Boards are less than perfect, for several reasons:

• They have very little power Their role is more or less advisory. If they object to proposed city planning, that cannot stop the plans from going through.

• They are not particularly representative Community Board 1 in Queens covers an area that includes the Queensbridge Houses, one of the largest public housing projects in the country. Most of the residents there are African-American, and yet Board 1 had (as recently as a year and a half ago) only one African-American member. (There are two today—on a board with almost 40 members.)

• They are oriented toward the Borough, not the City Under the old Board of Estimate system in place until 1989, Borough Presidents had substantially more influence over how the city was run than they do now. What is needed today are Boards or Councils based in City Council districts, oriented not toward the fairly meaningless Borough Boards but toward City Hall, where the real decision-making power lies.

How the Community Council System Would Work

In each City Council district, we might elect a relatively small number of people—say, ten or twelve, or perhaps an odd number to prevent ties and deadlocks. They might be elected at-large or within “wards” (sections of the larger district). This second option is probably better, since it would ensure that the different small neighborhoods within a given district—which are often very different indeed—would be represented. (A walk around City Council District 22 illustrates the tremendous diversity of our area, and probably the same could be said of many other districts. There are ethnic differences, and sometimes very stark differences in terms of how poor or well-off people are. Two Coves has community concerns that may not be relevant for Astoria Heights, and vice versa. Issues that are important in Old Astoria might be very different from those in North Queensview. And so on.)

A dozen or so elected representatives in each City Council District shouldn’t seem extravagant to anyone. New York’s 51 City Council districts contain about 160,000 residents each. That’s a lot of people. Certainly a town of 160,000 in some rural county upstate deserves a city council or a town board. So why shouldn’t the same number of people living in New York City have an elected Community Council in their own “little city” of Astoria or Woodside or Jackson Heights? (Or Greenpoint or East Harlem…and so on.)

The Council should meet at least monthly. And an important part of those meetings would be a report from the district’s member of City Council—our representative at City Hall. This would ensure that everybody would be more up to speed on issues that concern us all. And perhaps they ought to be paid. A small stipend of perhaps $500 or $1000 a year would make the members more accountable to their constituents, since the people in the communities would certainly expect their Community Council members to justify that stipend by reaching out to their fellow residents and making themselves available. (If people think this is a grand sum of money, you only need to do the math. The cost of a dozen Community Council members in 51 City Councils districts citywide, paid $1000 annually, would amount to a little more than $600,000—not even one-tenth of one percent in a total budget of $48 billion.)

How the System Would Improve Our Quality of Life

Some of the benefits of the Community Councils would include:

• More help for City Council—–The offices of City Council members are overworked and understaffed. City Council would be better informed and better supported in its work if they were assisted by a body such as the Community Council in their district.

• More responsiveness from City Council—–Certainly a City Council member who has to report to his or her constituents twelve times a year will be more responsive and more accountable.

• Help in making Local Laws—–The Community Councils could bring their knowledge of their neighborhoods to bear in helping to make Local Laws. They could propose legislation that City Council (as it’s presently set up) cannot formulate now, due to lack of information and input from residents.

• Better organization and increased clout in dealing with Albany—– Much of the local authority that New York City lost in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s can come back to the city now. At that time New York’s population was about 7.1 million. As of the 2000 census, it is over 8 million—more populous than it has ever been in history, thanks in large part to increased immigration. (About 40 percent of New York City residents today are foreign-born; in Astoria the figure is about 50 percent.) Neighborhoods have more residents, less crime, and a better tax base than they had 30 years ago. Now is the time to rev up the organization of New York’s 51 little cities and start demanding what we deserve from New York State—such as the billions for city schools already awarded to us by the courts but denied to us by the governor.

• Shining a light on corruption—–A Deputy Commissioner of Buildings in the Giuliani administration, one Richard Visconti, in 1998 issued a so-called “technical memo” that allowed cell phone companies to skip the approval process to start putting up cell phone antennas on rooftops all over the city. The legal process calls for public hearings in the communities where the companies want to build the antennas. If it weren’t for the courage and tenacity of the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, headed up by activists Evie Hantzopoulos and John Campos, we might never have found out that the cell phone antennas were installed illegally and without timely review by the residents of Astoria.

• Making everybody more accountable—–When SCS Energy (a Massachusetts-based power company which goes by the locally adopted name of “Astoria Energy”) first proposed a new natural gas-burning power plant at the north end of Steinway Street, they had to submit to local hearings held by the state Dept. of Public Service and Dept. of Environmental Conservation in April 2001. The proposal was for a huge plant with capacity of 1000 megawatts. Elected officials from West Queens held several very well-publicized rallies protesting a much smaller proposed plant (with capacity of 88 megawatts) that was eventually built on the East River next to Silvercup Studios. But while freshman Assemblyman Michael Gianaris and City Council candidate Peter Vallone Jr. were able to show up at those rallies protesting the smaller plant, they never organized rallies to protest the much larger plant at the site on Steinway Street. In fact, on the evening of the hearings for the bigger plant—which were attended by dozens of out-of-district building trades workers and covered for TV news by Channel 2 and Channel 4—Gianaris and Vallone Jr. were nowhere to be seen.

Obviously it would be helpful for people in Astoria to be able to question their elected officials about matters like this more regularly and more often—not just once a year at a Town Hall at the Museum of the Moving Image. If this were the case, we might be able to find out why it was so important to protest a very small power plant project…but OK to do nothing to protest a project that was more than ten times the size.

We would lose nothing by making our system of city government more democratic and making our elected officials accountable to the people who do the work and pay the taxes. Throughout American history, more democracy—more power for the average person—has improved life for everybody. From the abolition of slavery, to the gains of the organized labor movement, to the winning of the vote for women, to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s…these changes made our country a more fair, decent, and humane place to live. We can be confident that more democracy for our communities would have the same civilizing influence on life here in New York City today.

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