Fordham’s Community Board Website Out of Sight for Residents

After a two-month hiatus, many Bronx community boards in September will resume legislative action without making important information easily available to community members.

Issues of transparency permeate the borough’s local governments. Only four of the 12 boards have posted recent meeting minutes to their website; other boards’ public records are outdated by multiple years. Some are worse than others: Community Board 5 last updated their general meeting minutes in 2013, and Community District 7 does not currently have a working website.

“Community boards don’t really communicate with the public in a way in which the public knows what they do,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, which ensures accessibility to public information is accessible.

The lack of information isn’t just frustrating; it can be illegal. Freeman said not releasing minutes violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, which requires most minutes be released to the public within two weeks of a meeting. He said that providing timely, accurate information is important to build better relationships between government and the community.

“I think people should have a clue about what a community board is and what it’s doing,” Freeman said. “People don’t become involved in local government because their community board doesn’t engage them.”

Community boards are the lowest level of government that advocate for citizen’s rights at the district level. Boards in the Bronx represents the interest of about 50,000 to 150,000 geographic neighbors, as opposed to the borough’s population of nearly 1.5 million. According to the city’s Community Affairs Unit website, community boards are important because they help represent the needs of different neighborhoods to city government.

The city’s 59 community boards each submit a yearly Statement of Needs, a local assessment that helps city government allocate resources to top concerns, such as affordable housing, parks, quality-of-life issues or transportation. Also included is the district’s budget requests for the next fiscal year.

But lack of transparency means boards fail to provide public information to their communities. Of the 12 community boards in the Bronx, Community Board 7 is the only one without a working website. These pages, when updated, provide communities with important information such as leadership positions, contact information, meeting dates, agendas and minutes. The board’s website, which should provide information for residents of Bedford Park, Fordham, Kingsbridge Heights, Norwood and University Heights, has been under construction for nearly a month.

Ischia Bravo, the board’s district manager, said she hopes the new site will go live soon. In the meantime, she communicates online with her community via a Facebook page.

“I live on that,” said Bravo, who has been the district manager for eight months. “It’s always on my phone.”

Bravo said one of her district’s top priorities is outreach, and she said the board tables at local events to raise awareness and help people register to vote. The board also partners with local agencies to provide more specific services to residents: notably, Bravo said they’ve partnered with local housing corporations for the day-to-day needs of residents.

“We’re here to help,” she said. “It takes all of us to plan something.”

But the effect hasn’t been immediate. Bravo said she wants to see more community involvement and doesn’t know why more people aren’t engaged. For her, it’s personal. She was born in Community District 7 and lived in Baily Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the district. She was a board member before becoming district manager in January.

“The only way to fix things is to be involved and have a voice,” she said.

For some boards, leadership turnover and large projects can lead to a lag in public information becoming public. Kenneth Brown, district manager of Community Board 5, said the board leaders are volunteers who don’t always have time to keep everything up-to-date. The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan is a large rezoning project and a top priority, Brown said.

His board’s website lists most leadership positions as “vacant” when they are filled, and the last meeting agenda posted was from November 2013, even though meetings occur monthly. Brown said the site is backlogged because minutes must be approved before they can be made public, a task for which board volunteers rarely have time.

The page listing officer positions on Community Board 5’s website shows vacancies in all but four positions. Kenneth Brown, the district manager, said the positions were not vacant. A page for meeting minutes links to five documents from 2013, two from 2009 and four from 2008. Credit: Samantha Stokes

But Freeman said it is not unlawful to release minutes for board approval; h actually encourages boards to release meeting minutes and public documents as soon as possible for the public to view, even prior to approval.

“Most community boards are sort of invisible,” said Freeman. “People don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know what’s out there.”

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