Community board readies to elect new chair

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If there’s one thing anyone can say about a New Yorker, she’s well represented. At least as far as government is concerned.

We’re talking the governor, senators, Assembly members, right down to the city council. But then there’s representation on an even more micro level — community boards.

There are 59 such boards in the city, filled with up to 50 volunteer advisors, often working as sort of a liaison between the community and city agencies who plan and carry out projects there.

That group locally is, of course, Bronx Community Board 8. And for the past three years, it’s been led by Rosemary Ginty, one of the architects of Riverdale’s acclaimed Special Natural Area District, who has spent more than a decade on the board. But at CB8, a chair can only hold that seat for three years. And when summer rolls around, it will be time for Ginty to step aside for someone else.

While Ginty’s departure is decided, who will replace her isn’t. And for the first time in several years, CB8 members might be forced to take sides on who will lead them next.

The primary candidates at this point is Ginty’s vice chair, Laura Spalter, a 16-year veteran of the board, and Sergio Villaverde, a longtime chair of CB8’s economic development committee.

When the board gets together virtually for its next meeting April 22, a nominating committee will be formed. This committee is expected to put forward a slate of candidates for the June meeting where new officers will be decided. 

But that slate isn’t definitive. Anyone on the board who wants a position could be elected — if they get the votes.

“People can throw out any name they want, do whatever they want,” Spalter said. “The nominating committee is just the beginning of the process.”

Spalter expects her name to be one of those on the ballot. And while she had spent years quietly leading CB8’s environment and sanitation committee, it wasn’t until her elevation to vice chair in the past year that she even considered seeking out the top spot.

“I just feel that from vice chair, it’s just a natural step to throw my hat in the ring for chair,” Spalter said. “I just feel very comfortable, very qualified to meet all the challenges we are going to face.”

According to CB8’s bylaws, the chair acts as the “chief executive officer,” and is responsible for filing all reports required by the charter, as well as presiding over meetings. They are also considered an “ex-officio” member of each committee on the community board.

Unofficially, Spalter said, the chair is responsible for coordinating across the committees, working with everyone for the good of the people and businesses they’re supposed to represent. 

In fact, there are three priorities for the board.

“We have a role in the (city) budget,” Spalter said. “We have a role in land use. We have a role in constituent services. And there’s a tremendous amount to be coordinated.”

Coordination just happens to be one of Villaverde’s strong suits. With an extensive background as a New York Police Department officer, an EMT, and a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, Villaverde now runs a small law firm.

“I’m big on leadership and development, working collaboratively with all of the chairs,” he said. He’s also mindful that leading a community board can be a time-consuming, sometimes difficult, job.

“It’s very different, you know, interacting with people who are volunteers as well,” Villaverde said. “There’s two sides of that job. Working with chairs, one has to be cognizant of the fact that they are also volunteers.”

Working with volunteers, Villaverde said, he would focus on bringing out the best in them, without enforcing a boss-employee dynamic. He’s also focused on bringing more transparency to the community board, and has already pushed for the board to maintain public records.

“We are an agency that the public does have access to our materials,” Villaverde said. “And they should have access to our material. And that was something that came about as a result of me saying we need to have this public access, we need to have this transparency.”

Whoever wins the big seat will deal with a wildly different circumstance from any of their predecessors as New York likely will be in coming out of a long shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Spalter already has her eye on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently announced budget, which significantly cut education, youth summer programs, and infrastructure upgrades as the city struggles to balance the money spent fighting the virus.

“A lot of cuts — sanitation, education, parks,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to maintain our quality of life and all the issues. I think it’s going to be at least two years of a very bad budget.

Small businesses have taken a particularly hard hit, many forced to close altogether, while restaurants that do stay open are only able to offer takeout and delivery.

“It’s just heartbreaking, and you just pray that they’re going to be able to reopen,” Spalter said. “The board, has been, as we get updates on grants, resources, support systems, from anyone from federal, state, local, we pass them on to our merchants, to our BIDs.”

Villaverde hopes his connections with the various Bronx merchant associations, forged during his time as the economic development chair, will help him get those businesses back on their feet when they’re finally able to reopen. Communicating with owners about their needs has been a priority throughout his tenure, he said.

“That’s a big focus of what my committee and what I personally have been doing,” Villaverde said. “It’s not just me. This is a committee. I believe that good leadership doesn’t require you to take credit for every single thing.”

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