New Kids On The Block

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Civic-minded teens laud bill allowing them to serve on community boards

Before he was appointed to Community Board 4, Austin Ochoa said more of his peers would be applying to serve if they knew they had a shot at getting on the board.

Ochoa, age 19, was appointed by Borough President Gale Brewer in April. She's been working for the past four years to pass a bill allowing 16 and 17 year olds to serve on the board, and last week that work paid off with the passage of a state bill allowing it.

Ochoa, who was 18 at the time of his application to CB 4 in Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, wasn't sure if he would be approved. Now, three months into his tenure, he said he's fitting in just fine and his fellow board members have helped him get up to speed with issues in the board's territory. He is, by far, the youngest on the board.

"There are some members in their 20s, but at the end of the day it's easy to forget about who is younger than who because it's such a collegiate atmosphere," said Ochoa.

Ochoa sits on CB 4's Housing, Health and Human Services Committee as well as the Quality of Life Committee, and has no shortage of enthusiasm for a new initiative by the board to bring over 11,000 affordable apartments to Chelsea and Hell's kitchen.

"This plan is truly historic and the first of its kind," said Ochoa. "I'm really proud that our board has taken the lead on such an important issue to our neighborhood, and I'm really hoping that this plan will set the precedent for all future housing development city-wide."

Ochoa said teens have the ability to bring a perspective to the board that isn't often found in local government.

"I think it is a good way to bring a new generation into the fold," said Ochoa. "Many young people can add a great deal to the community board discussion, particularly in the areas of education, housing and park space."

Going forward with the new bill though, he would attach a mentorship program where younger members fresh to the board would be advised by an older and more experienced member.

"Such a program will not only allow them to better understand the issues and potential solutions, it should also serve as a mechanism to protect these new board members from being overly susceptible to the influence of local politicians or more senior board members," said Ochoa.

Do fellow board members take him seriously?

"Having the ability to contribute to discussions on the board about issues that I'm passionate about such as housing and education really brings a sense of fulfillment that my presence isn't being overlooked," he said. "I really feel that my voice is being heard and I'm representing and defending the values that got me to this point."

Ochoa said he plans to apply for a second term when the time comes.

Quentin Dupouy was 17 when he applied to Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side. He wasn't approved, possibly because the law that would have allowed him to serve wasn't yet on the books. He applauds the new bill and actually worked to spur its passage, though it won't help him next time he applies to CB 7 as he'll be 18. Knowing this, he lobbied the state legislature for its passage anyway as vice chair of the NYS High School Democrats.

"A number of us actually worked to lobby our state legislatures by calling their offices to notify them of our support and the efforts to pass this law," said Dupouy.

He also agrees with Ochoa's assessment that community board service is a great first step for younger New Yorkers looking to get into public service.

"It is an important step in building a base of future young leaders in our communities, showing youths that they can have a say and giving them valuable experiences," said Dupouy. "This law will improve representation of our communities and better serve our city's youth."

Dupouy said teens have direct experience with many issues in the district, and their insight shouldn't be squandered.

"I think there is serious value in getting youths' perspectives on neighborhood issues, particularly ones related to education, youth programs, transportation and park development, which most directly affect us," said Dupouy. "I cannot stress enough how valuable it would be in a discussion about local schools to actually have someone currently in the system."

Although he wasn't eligible to serve on CB 7 when he applied earlier this year, Dupouy wonders whether he'd now be a board member had the law been enacted a few months earlier.

"While I might have had a fighting chance if the law had already been enacted, it's impossible to know if I would have been appointed, particularly faced with the challenge of a 17-year-old's inherently more limited resume being compared to those of older applicants," said Dupouy. "Nonetheless I believe in the next round of appointments, some formidable, highly active young applicants will surely appear, and will be able to show what a powerful asset they can be to the community."

Brewer supports this assessment, and said she was contacted by some prospective teen community board members before the bill was even passed.

"I've already gotten emails from at least two people that I've seen saying, 'Gale, I'll be 16 soon!'" said Brewer. "They're very excited. The governor hadn't even signed the bill and they're telling me they'll be [eligible] soon."

She expects a number of teens to apply to community board in the next cycle.

"These 16- and 17-year-olds are so intelligent, so grown up, and I don't know if it's because they're in New York, but they can really keep up with the adults," said Brewer. "Not all, but many. And anybody that says otherwise just doesn't know this group of 16- and 17-year-olds."

The bill was sponsored and passed at the state level by Senator Andrew Lanza and Assembly member Nily Rozic. City Council member Ben Kallos joined forces with Brewer to introduce a resolution calling for the measure at the city level, and Brewer credited council member Mark Levine with pushing for teens to be allowed to serve on community board when he was still a district leader.

"We've been working on this for about four years," said Brewer.

Do you think teens should be allowed to serve on community boards? Email and your comment may appear in print next week.