The Bronx and West Virginia don’t exactly have a lot in common, but one thing they do share similarities in is population. There are 1.5 million people in our borough, while West Virginia has just under 1.8 million.
But for more than half a century — 51 years, five months and 26 days, to be more precise — one man served in just one of two seats West Virginia has in the U.S. Senate.
Robert C. Byrd was first sworn in as a senator on Jan. 3, 1959 — when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president — and didn’t leave office until Jan. 28, 2010, just after the Barack Obama’s first year in the White House.
What finally convinced Sen. Byrd to leave? Well, he died.
When it comes to U.S. Senators, Byrd wasn’t alone. Others joining that list of lifetime senators include Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye (49 years), South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond (47 years), Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy (46 years), and Vermont’s Patrick Leahy. Outside of Thurmond and Leahy, what many of these senators have in common is that it took them dying to finally give up their seat. Thurmond died just months after he left the senate, and Leahy is still in office.
These lawmakers are so entrenched, it’s almost impossible to get them out. Which is why term limits are so popular when it comes to elected officials. And we agree. It’s sort of like a basketball shot clock — you have so many years to make a difference, and then once you had your chance, you need to move out of the way to let someone else try.
In a country filled with people who don’t take the time to vote — and many of those who do simply picking names they recognize without knowing really who they are — term limits make sense. And they should be instituted sooner rather than later.
But just because term limits are a good idea for lawmakers at different levels, doesn’t mean they’re a good idea everywhere else.
That’s right, we’re talking about the proposed term limits for community boards, which you will have a chance to cast your vote for (or against) next month.
The idea, offered by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission, would limit community board appointments to eight years, and then require a two-year break. The goal is to get fresh blood onto the boards which, at least according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, just doesn’t have enough of.
Term limits at the community board level, however, don’t make sense. The U.S. Senate — even the U.S. House of Representatives — feature a small group of people, each representing vast populations. Each of the 50 senators, for example, represent 6.5 million people.
The House, with its 435 members, each represent just under 750,000 people.
Community boards? New York City has 59 of them, each with the room for 50 members. That’s 2,935 city residents who get a say in how New York runs. That means each one represents a little more than 2,900 people.
Those ratios don’t even exist on the state level, with an average Assemblyman, for example, representing 132,000 people. And like the Assembly, community board members serve two-year terms, and would require appointment (or, if on the Assembly, election) for future terms. Those appointments are decisions made by both our local city council members and our borough president — both elected officials who operate under their own term limits.
Community boards are fantastic because, although appointed, they are the closest we get to direct democracy, especially since one out of every 3,000 residents in New York City currently serve on a community board.
If there is anywhere having someone serving for decades would be helpful, it’s the community board. This is where institutional knowledge and experience are needed the most, especially when it comes to new construction.
Four of our five borough presidents — including our own Bronx leader Ruben Diaz Jr. — were exactly right. Developers go to community boards with entire teams of people, experts not just in construction, but about how to push through projects that communities might want to think twice about otherwise.
What’s the best defense to such offensives? Experience and institutional knowledge. The experience and knowledge one gets from serving on the board for a long time.
And yes, we get that it’s not an “eight-years-and-done” scenario like it is for the occupant of the White House. After two years, term-limited community board members can return.
But let’s be honest with ourselves here. You put in eight years, you’re forced to step down. In the next two years, you take on other projects. Are you necessarily going to run back to the community board?
And how exactly will this work? According to the referendum language, the clock starts ticking next April. Considering many members of community boards have served for years, and likely will continue to do that, a large number of people will term out in April 2027.
Who is going to replace all those people? Right now, Community Board 8 can’t fill all its current openings, and they aren’t alone. Finding 50 people in each community willing to commit the large amounts of time needed to be a board member — and with no pay — isn’t easy.
It’s the same question happening with city council in 2021. Some 35 of the 51 members of city council will be termed out — that’s a lot of people, and an unprecedented brain drain.
Luckily, however, the typical city council member represents more than 167,000 people. There’s a large pool to choose new city council members from. Yes, it’s a major time commitment there, too, but the salary is much more — like nearly $150,000 more.
Community boards don’t have any of those luxuries. And we’re betting de Blasio — not known to be a fan of decentralized government through community boards — knows that as well. A vote for term limits on community boards is a vote to kill community boards.
And when there’s no one left to fill these massive vacancies, death is exactly what will come to community boards.