June 15, 2014 By John O’Reilly
During recent Community Board 2 meetings, the term “transparency” has been used with greater frequency to describe the Board and its various committees’ actions and functions. Is this description accurate?
No. Community Board 2 fails to make important community information easily accessible and does not provide details about who sits on the Board and how its decisions are made.
The Board would be “transparent” if it were good and fast at answering requests for information from the public and published a large amount of information without the need for requests—such as publishing on its website detailed information on community issues pending before the Board.
While the Board does post an upcoming agenda on its website (after three click-throughs under the heading: “Calendar of Events”), a transparent Board would provide the public with the same information and data (or as much as possible) on its website that the Community Board/committee will use to render a decision. Such data should be available well before the Board makes a decision on a host of matters—whether it’s dealing with moving a municipal facility to the area, modifying a local park or allowing a local establishment to expand its facilities.
The Community Board currently publishes it minutes on the website weeks/months after a meeting and provides a numerical count of a Board vote with a brief description of points made.
The Board minutes should be more transparent. They should name the vote made by each member on a particular matter and identify the Board member by name when they make a comment or ask a question. After all, members of the public, guests, public officials and Board officers who speak are identified by name with a brief description of the comment.
The Board does list the names of its members on the Board website. However, would it be more transparent if it included the date of original and subsequent appointment(s) and periods of Board service? (Is it really true that a significant portion of members have served on the Board since the last century?) Would it be more transparent to include in the identification of the Board’s officers, the time period each has held his/her position, including prior and current terms of office?
Would including the closest cross streets and neighborhood (e.g., 46th Street and 47th Avenue, Sunnyside) of each Board member’s residence and/or the name and address of a member’s business enhance transparency and dispel widely held beliefs that certain neighborhoods are over-represented and other neighborhoods are under-represented on the Board?
Questions about transparency and the Community Board should not be misinterpreted to denigrate the dedication and service of Board members and its officers, who serve as volunteers, nor as criticism of the Community Board’s limited staff, who perform a broad range of valuable work for the benefit of the community.
However, Community Board 2 is not transparent; it does not have a policy on transparency; and Board members/officers seem to use the term “transparency” to deflect good faith questions about how and why decisions are made. Community Board 2 adheres to a minimalist approach to providing information to the public.
If a member of the community wants to learn more than the basic, required information included on the Community Board’s website and for example wants to learn details about a City agency’s plans to acquire property in the community, like the Fire Department’s proposal for a multifaceted facility on 43rd Street, an appointment must be made during the business day at a mutually convenient time to visit the Board’s office on 50th Street to view relevant documents in the Board’s files but only with a Community Board staff person at your side.
If the community member wants to take a mobile device image of pages of documents, special permission is required and a second appointment is needed, again under the observation of a staff person. This process is generally described as Soviet style transparency.
If a community member wants to obtain a copy of the Board’s By Laws, and requests to the Community Board are frustrated by non-response, and instead has to utilize back channel, secondary sources to obtain the legal document which provides the framework for the Board and its actions, that’s not transparent. (Community Board 2’s By Laws are available on the internet not on the Board’s website but rather via a link in a May 1, 2014 news story published by the Sunnyside Post.
There are important reasons for the Community Board to take the time to develop and implement a policy on transparency. The benefits of actual transparency include enhanced accountability and lessened distrust of the Board and its actions. The community has the right to hold Community Board 2 and its committees to account for how they act and for the decisions they take.
Rumor and suspicion about Board members and individual motives would be greatly reduced if more and better information is readily available. Actual transparency will enhance community participation in the Community Board and committee work, and result in better informed and more readily accepted decisions. Discussion of community issues often devolve to statements that one side or the other need to become involved in the process, but to be involved it is essential that people can readily access a wide range of information to facilitate participation in a real and effective way in community matters, including speaking at Board meetings and public hearings.
Actual transparency will promote efficiency in the Board’s work and use of staff time. Making documents and data readily available to the community has the benefit of promoting information management and reliance on facts rather than anecdotes. As a result, the Community Board and committees will have a framework for better, more fact-based decision-making and more effective communication with the public about decisions. Board staff time will not be consumed with setting up appointments, locating documents, sitting and watching a community member’s review of documents, finding out if an image can be taken of a public document, rinse and repeat the foregoing cycle when the community member has to return to the Board’s office.
Limited staff and staff time is usually cited as the primary reason why a more effective website can’t be developed, why more and better information can’t be provided, and why documents can’t be put into a form readily accessible on the Board’s website. However, several community Boards around New York City have already acted in varying degrees to provide better and more readily available information on their respective websites than is provided by CB 2.
Improvement in CB 2’s web site can easily commence with finding out how the other Boards have been able to act and incorporating their practices.
Community Board 2 should act as soon as possible to implement the reality of Board transparency increasingly mentioned by its officers and members.