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Queens BP Richards Calls on State Legislature to Allow Community Boards to Meet Remotely

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (Queens Borough President’s Office)

Aug. 9, 2021 By Allie Griffin

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards is calling on the state legislature to allow community boards to meet remotely for the duration of the pandemic.

Richards penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie Thursday requesting that they pass legislation that would allow community boards the flexibility to meet remotely.

Community boards have been required to meet in person since June 25, when Governor Andrew Cuomo ended his executive order declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19. The expiration has meant that meetings must again be hosted for the public to witness in person, as part of the state’s Open Meetings Law (OML).

“Amid the rise of the dangerous Delta variant, Queens’ Community Boards have rightfully expressed concerns about meeting in-person again,” Richards wrote. “As leaders of the New York State Legislature, we respectfully request you consider revising the Open Meetings Law for the duration of the pandemic.”

Richards’ letter, which was signed by several Queens community board chairs, follows an earlier letter sent out by Queens Community Board 6 Chair Alexa Weitzman to elected officials.

Weitzman informed lawmakers that CB6 would not be holding its meetings in-person and would continue to hold them remotely. She cited concerns over the highly contagious delta variant.

“The executive order might have ended, but the pandemic is not over,” she told the Queens Post last week.

The variant has driven up cases of COVID-19 across the city, leading health officials to strongly recommend all people wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. The city also will require customers to be vaccinated to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues starting next week.

Chairs from 12 of the borough’s 14 community boards signed onto Richards’ letter, along with several community board managers.

The concern follows an in-person Manhattan community board meeting on July 26, which was the source of two fully-vaccinated attendees testing positive for COVID-19.

A bill has been introduced in both the Assembly and Senate that would allow public bodies like community boards the flexibility to either continue to hold virtual meetings or hold a hybrid of in-person/virtual meetings in accordance with the Open Meetings Law.

The legislation has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote since the legislature is currently not in session.

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Pat Dorfman

If Only Online, We No Longer Have Community Boards
Small Town Confidential Op Ed

Allow public in-person Community Board meetings or WAIT to hold votes on Land Use or Transportation matters which have strong local opposition and will permanently affect the larger community.
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Non-public votes, no matter the large “yes” tally, will forever seem backroom and illegitimate to opponents.
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Community Boards may decide to hold internal meetings online for their own needs. But we know in hindsight that recent controversial decisions made by Community Board 2 should never have been conducted online without possibility of an in-person presence of the community.
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It was wrong for the mayor to approve the online process for ULURP’s as requested by the real estate industry. ULURPS, designed expressly for community input, failed during the pandemic. On some matters here and citywide, they were used to stifle and hide community opposition.
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AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROBLEM

• A Steve Madden Officer waiting to speak at the online hearing for a vote on residential rezoning 50-25 Barnett reportedly hung up in distress after 2.25 hours of waiting. ALL non-Board members or non-dignitaries had been relegated to the end of the meeting.

• The Steve Madden company, next door neighbor on Barnett, then sent in writing January 14 to Councilperson Van Bramer their vow to relocate and take 400 jobs if the rezoning occurred.
The Board Chairperson Deller reported she never saw the letter until it appeared much later in the press.

• The Board needs to hear fully from the community before voting — not send a flurry of internal emails to each other the day of a vote as a Board member informed me took place. That is not adequate community input.

• Even at the final vote meeting on Barnett, opponents were only allowed to speak after the vote was taken. Why bother?

• Those community members who wished to speak not only had to wait, but were not identified by published name on the call, or allowed to be seen, in the former WebEx platform.

• The dissemination of online links for subsequent NYC hearings about Barnett, difficult enough during the pandemic, was not adequate to Board members. All votes by the city passed unanimously despite opposition we have documented. Chair Deller did try to get word out about CPC, but the CPC process was difficult to navigate. I personally heard no way to testify before City Council.

• For the hearing held by the Borough President Donovan, some Board member opponents were not informed of the meeting after it was too late to attend. The Councilperson, however, showed up with a union official to speak in favor, and two Executive Board members to speak in favor, showing considerable pre-preparation.

• When online meetings are used to suppress opposition, such as calling only “yes” voters on the phone for votes during meetings as Exec. Board Member Lewandowski did for the final vote, that does not seem properly democratic.

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Long-time CB2 Board member and former Chair, Patrick O’Brien, resigned this year, citing one cause of his resignation as three members of the current Community Board lobbying in person Executive Board member and candidate, Norberto Saldana.
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I believe the three were Benjamin Guttman, Rosamond Gianutsos, and Frank Wu. Norberto said he was asked by the three not to run for Secretary. He did run, and lost, presumably due to the new make-up of the board, as radically reconstituted by Councilperson Van Bramer. Norberto, a modest man, is locally beloved, has run a food pantry for 20 years, and held many community-aiding events as Lions Club president, among his service.
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Such lobbying within the Board membership, even if done to save face for Norberto with their foreknowledge of a likely loss, is absurd for an unpaid, volunteer position. Norberto is Spanish speaking, and he reports some mention was made of greater communication skills of another candidate. What? More than 60% of our community understand Norberto better than all native English speakers. Norberto is translating and sending communications in English. Where are more Spanish-speaking members among our diverse members? The board is not representative.
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The apparent use of the Community Board to “ram through” votes on issues is not democratic and is not a true community board. The hearing of views from the public as we all have seen can be messy, loud, exhausting, and frustrating for volunteers who are there just their to help their community. But that is part of the role of a Board Member. Community Board votes should not be used by anyone to show progressive views by a candidate for office now or in the future. Once appointed, no matter by whom, a Community Board Member should act independently.
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Community Board members: Please listen to the whole community, not just other Board members or elected officials.

Yes, of course, you should vote your conscience in the final tally, as some did, believing sincerely they were helping the homeless and low income. But please do not participate again in an online process for controversial notes which does not allow you to truly hear the entire community. That CB2 Chair Deller is a signer to your letter means things will get worse here, not better.
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A democratic process means some will win and some will lose. We can accept losing if there has been a fair process. Many of us feel we no longer have any input locally and there is no longer a fair process in the Community Board.
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Note to our Borough President Richards: Thank you for recent citation last week. I was moved and thrilled. But though your reason for further solely online meetings is public health, the health of our city is also at stake. Until public meetings with key votes are held again by Community Boards, they are no longer community boards. Online access for the different abled, homebound, or ill can continue if additional to in-person access. We ask you to rescind your request in regard to meetings solely online with votes by Community Boards.

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Hj

Sure. So thet demand to work from home. While everyone else in NYC is being made to go back to the office. Let me guess your life matters more than your constituents. Same way they demand police protection and scream to defund the police for the rest of us.

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