Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Within CB9, Latinos Underrepresented - Despite Outreach Efforts, Only Five Latinos Serve on Community Board

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Within CB9, Latinos Underrepresented
Despite Outreach Efforts, Only Five Latinos Serve on Community Board
By Melissa Repko
Issue date: 3/28/07 Section: News

For over a decade, Latino members of Community Board 9 have voiced concerns about the lack of strong Latino representation, saying that a large community of Spanish-speaking individuals in the district has been left relatively voiceless.

With the election of Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer a little over a year ago, many Latino CB9 members said they anticipated change since Stringer ran under a platform of community board reform. Yet on Monday, when this year's appointments were released, not a single new Latino member was chosen for the board.

Only one applicant to CB9 identified him or herself as Latino or Hispanic, said Eric Pugatch, director of communications for Stringer. He added that the office does not discuss the specific reasons why applicants are or are not selected.

Latino members of CB9 authored a letter to Stringer two weeks ago calling for him to appoint more Latino members. The letter was especially motivated by a situation in which Spanish-speaking residents in the district-who live in a building under the Tenant Interim Lease program, which allows residents to gradually purchase a city-owned building-could not communicate effectively with the city. Though residents had saved over $200,000 toward the purchase, the building was being taken out of the program, threatening the status of residents' homes. Michael Palma, a Latino CB9 member, and Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, current CB9 chair, prevented the building from being taken out of the program after serving as translators for the residents.

According to the 2000 census, more than 500,000 Latinos live and work in Manhattan Community District 9 and make up 43.2 percent of the district. But on the board, only five of the 50 members are Latino.

Stringer wrote a response to the letter pledging that he would help CB9 increase the pool of Latino applicants in years to come, and he cited efforts such as translating application packets into Spanish and working with Latino organizations.

Palma said that he has been working for better representation of Latinos along with Reyes-Montblanc since 1992. More Latino members on the board would mean more people available to translate the concerns of Spanish speakers in the district and to better represent the population on issues of immigration.

Palma attributes the low number of Latino board members to a number of factors, including that Latinos in the district-which stretches from 110th to 155th streets-tend to be transient, do not always speak English well, if at all, and are not always aware of what the community board does.

In efforts to encourage Latino involvement, the community board conducted a special informational meeting on Oct. 31 in Spanish. The room was filled with representatives from the New York Fire Department, the Sanitation Department, and other governmental agencies, but only about 10 community members attended. Members of the Community Board and Reyes-Montblanc attributed the low turn-out to Halloween, and Reyes-Montblanc said that he hopes to hold meetings in Spanish once a month or at least every six weeks.

There is no staff member employed by the Community Board who can answer calls in Spanish and otherwise consult with Spanish-speaking residents. Reyes-Montblanc said that there haven't been openings for a staff position during his tenure as chair. He proposed that CB9 create a panel of Spanish-speaking members to hear the concerns of Spanish-speaking constituents.

But in proposing these ideas, Reyes-Montblanc, who is a native Spanish-speaker, also expressed ambivalence about accommodating Spanish-speakers. He said poor representation is not wholly due to the language barrier. "The language of this country is English. The language of New York is English," he said. "Most Hispanics and Latinos are bilingual."

In the past, CB9 had trouble representing the black community in the district, according to long-time Community Board member Maritta Dunn. "The district is changing," she said. "We are beginning to have a major influx of Africans and Asians into the area. In years to come, you are going to see another need to change the demographics of the board."

She said the board has been doing outreach to the Latino community for years and that it has always proved unsuccessful.

"You cannot make a person serve if they do not want to," Dunn said. "It is not the board or the borough president. It's not that the board did not recognize the need. It is that the Hispanic community did not respond to the outreach."

Norma Ramos, a member of the Latino Caucus who has been on the board for the last year, disagreed that Latinos are disinterested and called the sentiment expressed by Dunn "a self-defeating statement."

"It sounds like the excuse white employers would give when they do not want to hire people of color," Ramos said. "That's a very sweeping statement to say about a very diverse community of Latinos. ... I have not seen the kind of effort, the political will, that it requires to let this community know what this board is, what it does, and to get Latinos involved in this decision-making body."

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