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.)
For more information about community boards, click here and here – and read Beverly Donohue’s answers to WSR’s follow-up questions below. They were sent by email and are unedited.
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.
Thank you WSR – this is really helpful.
Regarding the topic of possible conflict of interest, also the head of the restaurant lobby is on CB 7. Prior to the implementation of restaurant street shacks, that person’s CB participation might not have been an issue – but now restaurant street shacks are a major land use issue and that changes the context….
And the current Vice Chair is an active commercial real estate agent whose name appears as a broker on several vacant stores in the District. Is he recusing from issues related to land use and commercial businesses?
And another member of the Board is a salaried employee of the conglomerate that includes “streetsblog” and pushes the same agenda as Transportation Alternatives.
Perhaps the Board should proactively move to identify members’ potential conflicts and inform us about the measures each is taking to avoid the appearance of a conflict?
Some of the voices on the community board are some of the most militant and divisive voices out there.
While I don’t doubt the sincerity and passion of the community boards, it has always mystified me that they aren’t simply a non-partisan elected position.
If they were elected it might increase our low turnout for local elections. And having a community board appointed by politicians themselves elected in low turnout elections dilutes the CB representation.
“Conflicts of interest are a key concern of CB7. For example, you have 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?”
I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest to sit on the CB just because you’ve publicly committed yourself to one set of policies. The question is whether you (or a person close to you) will be benefiting financially in a reasonably direct way from a decision you participate in making. So if the proposal had to do with banning delicious diner food, a member of the nonprofit advocacy group Eat Healthy and Die Later But Much Sadder would be fine; a diner owner would not be.
If you’re a restaurant industry or an anti-car lobbyist, you are benefiting financially from a decision that you participate in because without the desired outcome of that decision, you’re job wouldn’t exist.
No one on the CB is a paid anti-car lobbyist, so your comment is not relevant. Being on the Board of a nonprofit organization is a volunteer role, just like being on the CB is a volunteer role. Many CB members belong to local community groups that advocate for a range of policies- that’s what makes them good community boad members…. they’re active in their community groups, churches/synagogues, etc.
That’s just not true. The salaried chief of policy for the city’s largest anti-car conglomerate, “open plans,” Sara Lind, is listed as a member of the Board.
Yes there are paid anti-car lobbyists on CB7. More than one. But when confronted, they have their aliases on the comments section deny, deflect and gaslight.
If Beverly Donohue wants more collegiality on CB7, you don’t do it by using the discredited canard about conflicts of interest to call out two long-serving members of your board. There is no “dilemma” according to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board. The board has clearly and repeatedly stated that members or officers of advocacy groups do not have a conflict. If this were so, numerous CB members across the city who are engaged in their communities would have to recuse themselves. As Sarah states above, having a conflict of interest means you or your organization stands to benefit financially from a matter before the board, not that you support a position or cause and join with others who believe as you do.
Beverly Donohue did not “call out” anyone. Their names are on the Transportation Alternatives website.
Let’s face it, if the bike lobby had their way, community boards would be abolished.
Just two articles down in the West Side Rag homepage is an article about a fatal hit and run in our neighborhood. Horrifying. It’s completely bizarre to me that the new CB head would think that community members who are involved in groups that promote street safety have some sort of conflict of interest. They actually have our community interest in mind- not personal profit, so implying it’s a conflict of interest is irresponsible and literally ridiculous! CB members belong to all kinds of groups in their personal lives- they’re supposed to be active and involved citizens to get appointed. If they’re not personally profiting, stop mis-characterizing their community involvement! The City has lots of great Conflict of Interest policies, and being on the Board of a nonprofit is clearly not a conflict. Just stop.
Street safety is an important issue. But there’s a way to promote street safety without pushing infrastructure changes which spite car drivers. All while bus service is being cut in the outer boros, bus stops are being removed in the outer boros (soon Manhattan will be targeted), and the MTA is designed NOT to be accountable. Let’s face it, Transportation Alternatives gets large amounts of money from Uber/Lyft and gets donations from delivery and app based services which financially benefit from taking away individual car ownership.
This is a nice little profile, but I didn’t get a sense of what her ‘clear agenda’ is. Work towards what exactly? Are there issues of importance to the CB that she is especially passionate about? That would be helpful for residents to know .
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a mix of ages, a mix of backgrounds, a mix of politics – representing everyone and not just the “elite” who think they know better than everyone?
I can’t believe this board. Same thing, every year which is why not everyone is represented. Only the “chosen elitists”. What a joke.
You have bike lobbyists who live in $11,000 a month luxury apartments and have a luxury Audi garaged on the UWS serving on our community boards.
Source? Even if true (doubtful…) so what? Should there be a cap on how nice an apartment CB members should be able to rent or own?
That is probably why they are publicizing the taking of applications (like I have never seen it before.) And also publicizing, again in a way that is actually getting out to people, the fact that everyone currently on the board must re-apply. Have hope. Good people are realizing that it’s time to step up.
The same people have been on the board for forever. Eight years and they’re out? Starting when exactly? I’ve applied at least twice for CB7. Engaged, thoughtful answers on that ridiculously long application. And got nowhere.
If you want to change the membership of the CB put in an application and offer to help.
But the membership is ultimately appointed. So the pool of applications can get wider and yes that would be great in theory only. But the final appointments are made by elected officials — no one will be appointed who might challenge elected officials on any of the sacred cows of our political leaders.
Thank you WSR. I found this article interesting and informative. There is so much that happens at the Community level that is a big mystery and impacts residents QOL. Articles like this can really help educate readers how to have their concerns heard. Good luck to Ms Donahue! This Board is sadly quite rife with drama at times and I applaud anyone who has the courage to acknowledge it and tackle aspects that aren’t beneficial to the community. Wishing her a productive year ahead. Thanks for the reporting.
Thank you very much for this. After 3 1/2 decades in the suburbs, I finally moved to UWS this spring & I had no idea how these community boards worked or how they fit into city government.
I hope the community board will do everything in its power to get tourist helicopters banned, especially in light of our Governor’s veto of a bill that would have addressed that.
Sarah & Phaedra,
Due to the restaurant shacks, it is not ok to have the head of the restaurant lobby on the CB . It is a COI. I know people who’ve had issues with shacks and feel afraid to complain due to this.
I think it is also a problem to have CB members affiliated with Transportation Alternatives as TA seems to care only about policies that support bicyclists. Incredibly the CB and TA supported “open streets” on Amsterdam and Columbus even though it meant bus detours, hurting riders who depend on mass transit.
So as a mass transit user, I now have little faith in CB 7.
There’s not a ‘problem’ to have TA affiliated CB members, sounds like you just happen to disagree with their views.
It seems like TA is pro mass transit and as a mass transit user myself (and with zero affiliation with TA) I’m very happy that TA has representation on the CB.