2004-04-30 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the
Editor's Desk

Who speaks for Rockaway residents?

Some of the answers to that question are simple and some are not.

It is obvious that our elected officials speak for us on many levels. The United States is a "Representative Democracy." That means the voters choose people to make decisions for them rather than voting on each item themselves (a Direct Democracy that can still be found in town meetings in New England).

For example, we chose Joe Addabbo and Jim Sanders to make decisions for us in the City Council. We did the same with Audrey Pheffer and Michele Titus in terms of the State Assembly.

That is the simple answer to the question of who speaks for Rockaway.

There is a far more disturbing answer to the question, however.

There are people making decisions for Rockaway residents who have never been chosen to do so by the people who are affected by those decisions or who where chosen by a small number of people to make major decisions for the rest of us.

The prime example of that is the community board.

Community Board 14, which covers Rockaway and Broad Channel, is an advisory panel made up of 50 local residents, many of them civic leaders.

While it is advisory in nature, it has some power in terms of zoning issues, the Uniform Land Review Process (ULURP) and in renaming streets.

It is comprised of people who are chosen by the Borough President and the local assembly members. Dolores Orr, who the chairperson for the community board is also the president of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association.

In the past, board members who bucked the political system have not been reappointed to their seats on the board. The board members may believe that they are free agents, but they are not. The politicians have them on a short leash that can be yanked at almost any time.

Taking a look at a controversial issue that still exists today, and the interaction between the board, the politicians and the community can be instructive.

A number of years ago, the leaders of the Belle Harbor Property Owners Association and the Rockaway Park Homeowners Association got together and decided that they wanted to have center malls on Rockaway Beach Boulevard just like their richer cousin, Neponsit.

They went to Community Board 14 with their proposal and the board approved a study by the city Department of Design and Construction.

The report came in saying that the malls were doable from Beach 126, where RBB widens out (the traditional beginning of Belle Harbor, although the BHPA says that its community begins on Beach 130 Street). The report called for "No Standing Any Time" signs along the stretch where the malls would be built.

After some bickering, the signs were changed to "No Parking Any Time" to allow St. Francis de Sales parents to drop their kids off at Beach 129 Street.

At the same time, a new organization was formed. The Rockaway Park Homeowners and Residents Association" was instituted to insure that people who did not own homes would have a say in their community. The Belle Harbor people never instituted a like organization.

At a meeting held by the new organization, a vote was held in February of 2001 on the proposed mall and the parking ban and it was turned down by the 200 people at the meeting.

Meanwhile, the older organization informed its membership about the plan.

The Belle Harbor Property Owners voted at a meeting of less than 100 people to approve the plan.

The community board chose to take the decision of both older organizations as its guide and voted to approve the plan.

Now that the malls have been built and the No Parking Any Time signs are in place, it is clear that both the community board and the local politicians who have been elected to represent the community work on the advice of the civic association, as unrepresentative as they are, and the community board.

It happened with the renaming of Beach 91 Street for Firefighter Richie Allen and for the parking sign ban.

A small group of people, elected by a small group of people as civic leaders have the final say, while the community sits, largely unaware of what is going on, and perhaps largely opposed to the decisions being made by those civic leaders and by the community board.

The Wave has received more than a dozen letters arguing that the writers were unaware that a vote had been taken regarding the malls and the parking ban.

Civic leaders might then argue that those letter writers should have shown up for the civic meeting where the plan was discussed and the vote was taken.

Perhaps they are right, but it is also true that those most effected by the ban, those who rent apartments, are not really welcome in either of those civic organizations and could not have voted even if they had attended the meeting.

Should those who rent have a voice in important issues such as this? Of course they should.

Issues as important as parking on the west end should be put to the community as a whole.

That is not to say that a community meeting might not approve the malls and the no parking rules in any case.

Judging by the letters to The Wave on the issue, there are many who believe that the beauty in the malls and the rise in property values that they see coming from the malls is more important than parking.

There are also many who believe that the no parking rules are need to keep "them" from invading west end public beaches.

Witness the statement of local resident Robert Intelisano, who reportedly told Newsday's Merle English, "Parking is not a right for people who live in New York City. You don't have the right to free parking."

Or other correspondents who urged those who are against the ban to "find a driveway to park in."

Just last week, a number of parking spaces were removed from the Municipal Parking Lot on Beach 116 St., obstentably for more NYPD parking. The Wave has now been told that the project will rennovate the lot and that it was approved by both the community board and the Chamber of Commerce. Where was the voice of the people most affected by the loss of parking -- the handicapped and the elderly. Who spoke for them?

Who asked them before the decison was made?

I understand that the community board and local politicians listen to
the civic organization leaders. I would probably do the same if I were in their position.

I would, however, make sure on controversial issues that a review is held and a community meeting to allow everybody to have their say before a plan is implemented.

That is the least those who are chosen by us to have a voice can do.

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