By Carol Tannenhauser
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield: Community Board 7 don’t get no respect. Those who know a little something about the board often claim it’s all talk with no power to act. Other Upper West Siders have no idea what CB7 is (according to an informal, random survey by WSR.)
“Community Board 7, Community Board 7…that’s the thing with Helen Rosenthal?” a woman guessed recently. (Actually, Helen Rosenthal was on the City Council and term limited out in 2021.)
In fact, as of October and for the next year, Community Board 7 is ‘the thing with Beverly Donohue,’ who won a contentious election to become its new chair. (Donohue’s campaign consisted of calling every one of the nearly 50 members of the board to introduce herself.) Drama erupted very publicly right before the vote, with one member verbally attacking Donohue’s opponent, drawing comparisons by another member to “reality tv.”
Those days are over, Donohue hopes. “If you have drama, you don’t have time to work,” she said in a recent interview at City Diner on W. 90th and Broadway. One of her goals is “to address the factionalized nature of our board,” but not through “draconian [methods],” she added. “I don’t think that develops the collegiality I would like to see. I’m planning to work differently: modeling behavior; developing opportunities for people to work together in real ways; solving turf disputes and things like that quietly and well before a meeting, so they don’t blow.”
Originally from Boston, Donohue, 78, moved to the UWS in 1973. She met her husband in college (he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe, before the two schools officially merged in 1999), after which a job offer (his) brought them to the city, where they raised two sons. Donohue, who taught middle- and high-school social studies, took some time off from work when they were young, then entered city government — where she rose to deputy director in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. Later, she was chief financial officer for the city’s Department of Education, serving over the years under Mayors Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. She then left government and served 15 years as vice president of the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools. Only after she retired in 2018 and was free of any potential “conflicts of interest,” did she apply to the community board, she said.
Conflicts of interest are a concern of CB7. For example, WSR pointed out that there are at least two members of the transportation committee who are also serving on the advisory board of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit whose stated mission is to “reclaim New York City from cars.” Should they vote on bike lanes? It’s a dilemma, Donohue said, because board members are chosen, in large part, for their expertise. Another member of the transportation committee is on the MTA board. “He understands the transit system like no one else on our board and perhaps other boards as well,” she said. “There’s so much talent on this board. Everyone brings something unique and important that I would like to see us utilize.” She explained that there is a city conflict-of-interest board that offers rulings about whether community board members should abstain from voting on certain issues, because of their other affiliations.
Donohue made two major changes in her first month as chair: she moved the community portion of CB7 meetings, when the public can voice questions, concerns, and opinions, to the beginning of the evening, “so they don’t have to wait till 10 p.m. to speak” — although they still follow the local politicians, who collectively take up a lot of time. And she replaced the co-chair of the transportation committee, Howard Yaruss, with Mark Diller, because, she said, “last June, the board adopted a revision to its bylaws that reduced the number of consecutive years a committee chair could serve from six to four. Howard had reached the four-year mark.” Yaruss is a member of Transportation Alternatives’ advisory board.
Community board members are appointed by the Borough President for two years. Fifty percent of them come from names submitted by a district’s City Council members, in CB7’s case, Gale Brewer and Shaun Abreu. The rest come through the application process, which is open now through March 17, 2023. In 2018, voters approved a ballot resolution limiting community board members to four consecutive two-year terms. The position is volunteer and unsalaried, and the application “takes some time to fill out,” still, Donohue said, “we’re told that CB7 always receives more applicants than any other board in Manhattan, because it’s so active.” CB7 generally meets on the first Tuesday of the month. (The next meeting is January 3, 2023, at 6:30 p.m. Watch for the registration link on CB7’s website.)
What is the mission of the community board?
I think of the community board as an advocacy organization that can elevate community concerns to the attention of city, state and federal government in ways individuals cannot. We can do that through public hearings, passing resolutions and sharing them with policymakers, following up relentlessly and connecting the dots among agencies that may see only the piece of an issue under their jurisdiction.
Is a public hearing the same as the community segment of board meetings?
Not quite. A public hearing focuses on a single issue while a regular public session of a board meeting is an opportunity for community members to raise any matters of concern they may have. Typically, a public hearing is reserved for issues where there is intense local interest and where many speakers from the public are expected. For example, a recent public hearing focused on West Park Presbyterian Church’s application to the Landmark Commission to remove the building’s landmark designation based on hardship. It is also common for a public hearing to begin with presentations from a panel of experts or of interested parties representing different views on the issue.
What is a resolution?
A resolution is a proposed statement of board policy voted on by the full board membership. Normally, a draft resolution is presented by a committee that has already discussed and voted on the issue in public session, often with input from community speakers, subject matter experts, and city agency representatives, among others. In a full board meeting, prior to a vote, the public is again welcome to make their views known. The resolution must receive a majority of votes from Board members present to pass and become official board policy. I have seen resolutions that had 90 members of the public sign up to speak and many others that had no speakers at all. [Examples of December resolutions are: one in favor of the introduction of five new pickleball courts in Riverside Park; one opposed to replacing Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages with electric vehicles; and several approving alterations of landmark buildings.]
Is a resolution a “synthesis,” i.e. representation of public response to an issue, gleaned from public input? I always thought it was just the committee’s response.
It is “both and”. Board members are frequently persuaded by the positions put forth by the public, but they vote what they believe. It is not always possible to synthesize the community response on controversial issues where the public is divided with opposing and strongly held views. That happens pretty frequently on the West Side. Board votes can be close on such issues. [in our in-person interview, Donohue referred to the June vote on whether to allow Park West Presbyterian Church to be torn down. “It was a very divided vote,” she said. “If a couple of people had changed their votes, it would’ve gone down. So we did vote in favor of preserving the church, but it wasn’t a unanimous decision by any means.” [The vote was 24 in favor of preservation, 13 opposed, 7 abstentions.]
Where does a resolution go?
That depends on the issue. Once passed, board resolutions are sent to whatever elected officials and city or state agencies are relevant. They are also posted on the board’s website and circulated to other interested parties we can identify.
What influence do resolutions have?
Certain resolutions (including Landmarks applications, ULURP [land use] proposals, and sidewalk cafe permits) are presented to city agencies and, while advisory, play a direct role in their own approval processes. Liquor license approvals by our board are mandatory for establishments to receive approval by the state. All other resolutions are basically one step in a broader advocacy effort. Once the board has taken a policy position through a resolution, it is normal to follow up with outreach to agencies, letter writing, requests for agency updates at committee meetings, and efforts to gain support from elected officials and other community organizations. It pays to be relentless. There are times it has taken many years to achieve an outcome, particularly if the issue requires a significant amount of funding. And we are still pushing on many resolutions passed years ago.
Do you get answers from the recipients?
There is one area where the city charter requires agencies to respond to community boards on a defined timeline. Annually, community boards adopt resolutions listing their budget priorities for city capital and expense funding within the district. These priorities are transmitted to the Department of City Planning, which then shares them with the appropriate agencies and provides agency responses back to the community boards. For other resolutions, responses are hit or miss and depend on how successful a community board is in building relationships with agency representatives. With each new administration, that requires getting to know a lot of new faces.
What are some examples of successful resolutions?
While it took several years of advocacy following the resolution, the board was successful in getting the Department of Transportation to install a mid-block crosswalk on 106th street so seniors at the New Jewish Home could walk across the street to the Red Oak Senior Center without climbing a steep hill to the corner. Mid-block crosswalks are rarely approved by the City. We have been particularly successful at working with local elected officials to fund innovative proposals in our parks. Community Board 7 took the lead in planning with broad community input for the Bloomingdale Inclusive Park and Playground and the Riverside Park Skatepark. The board was also part of a broad coalition supporting a successful zoning [law] amendment on mechanical voids [floors used to hold a building’s mechanical equipment, which were being heightened by developers to make their buildings taller] to limit their use in constructing very tall residential towers.