Brooklyn Community Board Considers Suspending Its 2020 Election Over Pandemic Disruptions, Sparking Backlash
This story was originally published on 6/8/20 by THE CITY. (By: Claudia Irizarry Aponte)
A Brooklyn community board that approved spending $26,000 in public funds to buy an SUV is considering skipping a required election, allowing its leaders to hold on to power for another year.
Brooklyn Community Board 1, which represents Williamsburg and Greenpoint, was slated under its bylaws to hold internal elections this month for its executive committee, including its chairperson and financial secretary.
But a board member has introduced a measure to cancel the vote, pushing it off until June 2021 — arguing that conducting a virtual election during the coronavirus shutdown would be too complicated.
Last month’s general board meeting, where nominations would have normally taken place, was cancelled.
“If there’s a group that wants to run they should say, ‘We have a group that wants to run and we want to have an election,’” said board member Jan Peterson, who is a member of CB1’s Bylaws Committee and introduced the proposal that would cancel this year’s election. “And that’s it. But they won’t say it out loud if there is one.”
Some other members say there’s no excuse to skip an election — least of all in a year when localities and states across the nation are striving to preserve voting rights in the face of the pandemic.
“I just feel like you can’t really suspend democracy in times of crisis,” said committee member Stephen Chesler, who was the lone dissenting vote on that proposal last Thursday. “I think it sets a bad precedent.”
A second proposal, which would allow a virtual vote by striking down a requirement that elections must be done by paper ballot, is also on the table.
Either proposal would have to be approved by two-thirds of the full 50-member community board in a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting expected later this month.
Board members reelected chairperson Dealice Fuller last year, despite the SUV controversy.
The subject came up at last week’s at-times tense virtual meeting of the board’s bylaws committee that was recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
The board’s bylaws currently stipulate that the board must create an election committee every April, with formal nominations at a regular full board meeting in May and elections via paper ballot in June.
The board’s by-laws also say that executive committee memberships expire on June 30 each year unless reelected.
Committee chair Julia Foster argued that since the election process is “already behind,” the board ought to scrap it altogether and try again next year.
Shake-ups in the executive committee might reverberate throughout the entire community board: for example, if the incumbent chairperson is defeated, a new chair would have the authority to appoint or remove members of the rest of the board’s dozen or so committees as she or he sees fit.
“In order to hold elections, it would be, to me, very very impossible because we were supposed to do a nominating thing in May, we should have had the elections this month,” Foster argued. “And we really, really, really truly don’t have the time to do it.”
“We need to keep our executive board running for the time being while in the midst of this pandemic and then have these bylaws changed,” she added.
Rabbi David Niederman, another committee member, agreed: “Let us have a stable situation for another year, nothing’s going to happen. We have a system that’s been working for years, let’s have it for another year.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Chesler shot back. “I feel like we’re denying a fundamental process of the board of having elections.”
Chesler supports the proposal that would allow for a virtual election for the executive committee, he told THE CITY. That proposal would also require amending the board’s bylaws, which mandate that elections must be done by paper ballot.
Chesler noted that the office of the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — who is responsible for appointing half of the volunteer members at each Brooklyn community board — encouraged community boards to amend their bylaws as necessary in order to hold elections this year.
“We made clear to all community boards in the borough that they must hold elections this year under guidance from the Law Department, and are to continue holding virtual meetings under the Governor’s Executive Order 202.1,” said Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Adams. “We urge all bodies to follow all applicable laws and guidelines.”
The fallout from Brooklyn Community Board 1’s controversial SUV purchase — which was criticized by members at all levels of city government, including Mayor Bill de Blasio — spurred citywide changes to procurement for all 59 community boards throughout the five boroughs.
After news of the purchase, first reported by THE CITY in May 2019, the City Council announced new limits to community board spending, capping individual expenses at $10,000 and prohibiting vehicle purchases.
Brooklyn Community Board 1 did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment sent to its email account about the elections.
Votes About Votes
Community resident Sarah Lilley expressed skepticism over the committee’s argument that virtual elections are “impossible.”
“I’m left to wonder how they assume they will vote on all the other business of the board, if voting on leadership is such a hardship,” Lilley tweeted the morning after the meeting. “They will hold votes in order to say it’s too hard to hold votes.”
They met remotely and voted — to argue that they can’t vote, for a year, bc it’s just too hard.
— Sarah Lilley #BlackLivesMatter (@Door_No2) June 5, 2020
Ward Dennis, a resident who attended the virtual meeting, told THE CITY that his opposition to the potential cancellation is about more than the community board.
“We are in the midst of a national debate over fair elections, and I know it is just a local community board, but for CB1 to be cancelling an election in 2020 is a really, really bad look,” he told THE CITY. “I don’t have any beef over who’s in on the executive committee or not, but there has to be fair and open elections.”
CB 1 will hold its monthly public executive committee meeting virtually on Tuesday.