When a Bronx Bulletin reporter got off the Bx7 bus near the Community Board 8 office, she felt lost. She walked to the address stated on the website but only found an empty parking lot. After seeking help from a passerby, she ended up in front of a small hair salon. It was not obvious where to go. After wandering around, she finally figured out where the office was located. “Unless someone was really determined to get to this place,” she thought, “it would be tough to find.”
With limited decision-making power, community boards serve as a megaphone for the voices of residents in the Bronx, helping community members express their needs and concerns to elected officials that represent them. But community boards lack consistency in outreach and accessibility. As a result, residents do not always know that there is a place they can go to be heard.
Around the Bronx, 12 community boards convene several times a month to discuss the community’s concerns. They are responsible for understanding the needs of constituent neighborhoods, bringing these concerns to elected officials, and sharing resources and information with residents.
A total of 59 community boards represent New York City residents at the most local form of government, and they often discuss matters of land use, education, parks, transportation, housing and health. However, they “do not have the ability to order any city agency or official to perform any task,” according to the city’s website.
Each community board is composed of up to 50 members, all volunteers, appointed by the borough president. In addition, a district manager paid by the city is responsible for hiring staff and making sure that boards are fulfilling their duties. According to the city’s website, the main responsibility of their office is to “receive complaints from community residents.”
Yet, the website also states that “many people don't know a lot about [community boards] or how they operate.”
Residents are not always aware of resources
Every month, community boards are required to organize at least one public meeting, where the board invites the community to voice their concerns. Residents sometimes seize that opportunity, like retired city employees from Community District 6, who urged their community board members to support a bill to restore their health care benefits. At another board meeting, on September 27, Community District 5 residents raised sanitation concerns.
In addition, outside organizations like the New York City Police Department, BronxWorks, or the mayor’s office often attend board meetings to answer questions that residents might have and share helpful, oftentimes free, resources.
But residents report they are not always aware that such a space is available to them.
Of the community boards in the Bronx, 10 out of 12 try to connect with the public through social media accounts, mainly on Instagram and Facebook. However, some accounts have not been updated for several months or even years. Community Board 6 last updated their Facebook account in June 2021.
Other boards, like Community Board 7 and Community Board 11, often post about meeting minutes, agendas, closures, and local events. Some boards, like Community Board 5, also share newsletters that provide detailed information about events and announcements in the area. Residents have to request to be added to the mailing list or attend a meeting to sign up.
George Torres, 45, the district manager of Community District 12, said that community boards do not always have as many resources for outreach as other city agencies. “They have a much larger staff and a dedicated unit to handle their outreach efforts,” Torres told The Bronx Bulletin in an email.
Community boards have one to three paid staff members and lack press units or I.T. departments to help reach the public, according to Torres. Joetta Brown, 1st Vice Chair of Community Board 3, said the board would start social media accounts “as soon as we get the personnel.”
Meeting minutes are missing in some districts
In a special report by The City, CB 3 was listed as one of six boards that were the “most egregious offenders” when it came to complying with laws regarding uploading minutes to their website.
According to the New York State Open Meetings Law, community boards are required to keep full and accurate minutes for every meeting. But in practice, this does not always happen. CB 5 only uploaded meeting minutes to their website five times in 2022, even though there were ten meetings.
CB 3 chairperson, Frederick Crawford, addressed the issue during a September board meeting. He said that the district manager, Etta Ritter, had been working alone for the past three years and had been unable to keep the website up to date. In September, Ritter told The Bronx Bulletin that she expected to hire another staff member in the coming months and said CB 3 will be compliant with regulations once they have the capacity to do so.
“How is it that you miss the first meeting when you get appointed to the community?”
Participating in a meeting can sometimes become difficult for residents. In Community District 1, a board meeting started 40 minutes late on September 28, as there were not enough board members present to approve the agenda and other motions. ‘‘How is it that you miss the first meeting when you get appointed to the community? How is that? Hundreds of people apply for this position,’’ a board member told the crowd.
A similar situation occurred during a Community Board 9 Education Committee meeting on September 14. Board members stood outside the office waiting for the district manager, William Rivera, 41, to arrive until someone managed to acquire a key. Only two of the seven Education Committee members were present and the meeting lasted only 20 minutes to accommodate Rivera’s schedule. The board only discussed one upcoming event.
Other community boards took additional measures to make sure residents were informed about public meetings. In Community Board 12, Torres told The Bronx Bulletin that he broadcasts community board meetings on live television in addition to streaming on Webex, YouTube, and Facebook Live at a tremendous cost. The District spends “upwards of $15k a year” on external production services to do so, Torres wrote in an email. “It’s a commitment we made and we intend to keep it, but sometimes it is a tough burden to shoulder.”
A majority of district managers don’t live in their district
District managers like Torres, sometimes assisted by other paid positions, oversee outreach and publicize board meetings and other resources as employees of the city.
Five Bronx district managers told The Bronx Bulletin that they were paid between $91,000 and $110,000 a year. Only one district manager, Kenneth Brown, from CB 5, earned below that range, and the highest paid district manager, Torres from CB 12, made between $131,000 and $150,000 a year.
When asked if they lived in their community district, over half of the district managers said no. Among the group who said no, at least three district managers told The Bronx Bulletin that they lived outside the Bronx.
During a meeting of the Franchise, Licensing, and Permits subcommittee on September 12, residents of Community District 2 chastised some board members for not living in the neighborhood. They yelled at board members and accused them of being disconnected from the community and its needs.
Moreover, a majority of the Bronx residents that The Bronx Bulletin interviewed were not even aware of the existence of community boards. Some residents had tried to reach out to their district’s boards, but often they did not hear back.
Lisa Murano, a 46-year-old social worker from Pelham Bay, said she tried to get in touch with Community Board 10 several times but struggled to speak with someone. “It’s not easy,” she said.
José Santos, 62, said he reached out to CB 9 seeking information about parking issues and an elevator in need of repair in his Parkchester building, but he said he never heard back.
The Bronx Bulletin also often had difficulty contacting several community boards. While some community boards, namely 5, 8, 10, 11, and 12, often responded to reporters’ calls, emails, and office visits, others were inaccessible.
A Bronx Bulletin reporter repeatedly reached out to Anthony Jordan, 46, district manager of Community Board 1, over the phone and email over several weeks to request information. On two occasions, Jordan said he would call or email back with a response but he did not follow up. When asked about CB 1’s outreach efforts for this story, he said on the phone that he would email back his comments but did not respond before the editorial deadline.
Another Bronx Bulletin reporter repeatedly reached out to the board chair, district manager, and two community coordinators from Community Didstrict 4 over the phone and email. Someone at the office confirmed over the phone that the reporter’s messages had been received, but she never responded to the reporter’s request. When the reporter visited the office to follow up, employees told them to make an appointment over the phone or email, but when the reporter tried to do so, no one responded.
Big decisions are out of scope
Matthew Cruz, 31, the district manager of CB 10, said that big decisions are outside the scope of community boards. “The mayoral agencies, they don’t often take into consideration the community’s voice,” he said. “I’m still accountable to the constituents who call our office.”
Instead, he said, community board employees can successfully escalate quality of life issues to higher agencies. Most recently, Cruz contacted the Department of Environmental Protection to help City Island residents alleviate perennial flooding on their streets. “Now it’s set to occur,” he said of the project.
Farrah Kule Rubin, the district manager of CB 8, said the board does several outreach walkthroughs in the district to reach out to small businesses. Rubin said small business owners and employees cannot afford to leave work to attend meetings. “It is important to meet them in person to hear their concerns and how we can address their needs,” Rubin said.
Before becoming a board member, Eloise Bennett, in her 70s, worked in foster care for more than 30 years. When asked why she volunteered to become CB 5 youth committee’s chair, Bennett said that she wanted to keep working with young people. “I realized that in my community, kids were running around and running amok, and I found out that there was something I could do,” she said.
Robert Nieves, 55, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, became a CB 5 board member after the summer break. “These committees build the community,” he said.
For over two months, Bronx Bulletin reporters attended Community Board meetings across all 12 districts of the Bronx. After speaking with dozens of Bronx residents across every Community District, we learned of a disconnect between constituents and their Community District leadership.
To gather data on the Community Boards that formed our interactive map, reporters created a Google Form with demographic questions for the District Manager, as well as other paid staff, and the chair of all 12 Community Boards in the Bronx. We then emailed these forms out to the recipients or filled them out with them in person. We received responses from 26 Community Board leaders.
The data accounted for the respondent’s ethnicity, age, education level, gender, how long and whether they lived in the community district they represented. We also asked the District Managers to report their income ranges, and we counted exactly how many members are on each Community Boards.
The Bronx Bulletin also assessed how easy it was for residents to learn more about their Community Boards online. We looked at the Community Boards’ websites, social media profiles, and meeting minutes to see if they contained up-to-date contact information, meeting schedules, and addresses.
From this data, we created an interactive and searchable map of community districts using Mapbox Studio with assistance from Open AI (GPT-4). To create this, we sought advice from Michael Krisch, Deputy Director, and Mark Hansen, Director, of The Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University. Our editors are Joanne Faryon and Lila Hassan.
Managing Editor: Katharina Heflik
Data & Methodology Editors: Rachel Kahn & Shiyang (Rachel) Yi & Samuel Eli Shepherd
Data Visualization: Eryn Davis
Story Editors: Elena Gastaldo & Yasmine Loh
Copy Editor: Samuel Eli Shepherd & Rachel Kahn
Layout Editors: Isis Blachez & Ariadna Sandoval
Photo Editors: Genevieve Charles & Lilou Margueron
Writers: Elise Ceyral & Trisha Mukherjee
Social Media Editors: Fahima Degia & Faith Wang & Himani Pangal
We would like to thank Michael Krisch and Mark Hansen of The Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University for their guidance and input to this project. The interactive and searchable map of community districts was created with Mapbox Studio and assistance from Open AI (GPT-4).
We thank Joanne Faryon and Lila Hassan for their guidance throughout the project.