The Civic Scene: Planned charter commission must keep powers of beep, CBs

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Borough President Helen Marshall was sworn in for her third term with high hopes at York College, but civic leaders have concerns about the plans City Hall has for charter revision. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a new Charter Revision Commission, which is unnecessary unless City Hall wants to take power away from the communities of the outer boroughs and centralize it in Manhattan.

At the last Queens Civic Congress meeting, the leaders present had concerns that a proposed Charter Revision Commission would either try to eliminate the borough presidencies and community boards or weaken them. City Hall does not like the community boards to have what little power they currently have because while protecting the quality of life in their neighborhoods, they often oppose things City Hall proposes.

If City Hall could weaken these institutions, then it might not have much opposition coming from the outer boroughs and thus could do whatever it wanted concerning taxes, zoning, economic development, schools and other activities.

Marshall spoke of the things that have been accomplished in Queens in economic development, building schools, rezoning communities, improving public safety, developing green projects, developing the arts, improving our parks, helping senior citizens and building new libraries and renovating old ones. While all this is good and the many proposals she made for the future are good, one has to watch carefully what the commission might suggest.

While the community boards are the eyes and voices of the city’s communities, they do not have much power. They can suggest, recommend, pressure and protest, but the final voice comes from City Hall through various department commissioners appointed by City Hall.

Marshall proposed stopping any weakening of her power by proposing any new charter commission to set a funding formula that gives the borough presidents a guaranteed percentage of the city budget. She then asked the charter commission to have at least one seat dedicated to a Queens representative. She also asked that any commission designate that borough president funds dedicated to vital senior services should be exempt from budget cuts and restore a long-standing practice that has been cast aside.

She pressed a point which the QCC has been asking for over the years. Since the borough presidents are part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, they should have an appointment to the city Board of Standards and Appeals. The BSA was created during the last charter revision when the city Board of Estimate was eliminated. The borough presidents had a vote in the old BOE, but do not have one on the BSA.

The problem is developers have figured out how to hire expediters to challenge the zoning of their property and what to say to get the BSA to wave the zoning so they can build larger structures than the original zoning permitted. The problem is the BSA constantly grants zoning variances so larger properties are built, which disrupt the quality of life guaranteed by the original zoning.

The borough president would also like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to include a representative from each borough to better “represent in a meaningful way the needs of the mass transit riders in each borough.”

Look what happened at the meeting of the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy a couple of weeks ago. It voted to close 19 schools although more that 300 people signed up to speak at a meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School and hundreds more had spoken at meetings in each of those 19 schools throughout the city in the past few months.

We have to thank our legislators in the state Legislature for voting in the new governance rules of the DOE, which require transparency.

A few years ago, when some members of a previous PEP voted against something City Hall wanted, they were dismissed. We will have to watch who is appointed to the proposed Charter Revision Commission and what proposals it makes. The people will have to take an interest because any charter revisions will have to be voted on by the voters in an election.

GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The public now has a voice in DOE activities.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The DOE des not listen to the people.

Updated 6:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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