Sunday, Apr 14th

Letter to the Editor: Term Limits Are A Hallmark of the Democratic Process

MemorialGardenThis letter was sent to the Mayor and Scarsdale Board of Trustees by resident Cynthia Roberts:

Dear Mayor Arest and Members of the Board of Trustees,

Many thanks to you all for serving countless hours as volunteers for our community. I listened with great interest to the March 12, 2024 hearing on the proposal to eliminate term limits for the volunteer members of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) and the Committee on Historic Preservation (CHP) who can currently serve up to two 3-year terms, for a total of six years.

I respectfully write in strong opposition to the proposal to eliminate term limits for the BAR and CHP. Term limits are a hallmark of the democratic process. We must ensure that our positions of power in Scarsdale are open to participation by a resident base that is constantly refreshed with new people and new ideas. Allowing the same persons to stay in power indefinitely serves as a disincentive to resident engagement and sets a dangerous precedent. Scheduled changes of membership, in contrast, enriches these decision-making bodies bringing more diverse perspectives, wisdom and experience.

Your well-intentioned reasons for eliminating term limits include a fear of losing current volunteer members of the BAR and CHP too soon after they have been trained and gained experience. Another rationale you mentioned was addressing the problem of member absence at officially scheduled meetings. Finally, you spoke about the importance of institutional memory.

You know that the first years on the job bring tremendous learning. Yet Trustees stay in office for no more than four years. Our own Mayors serve a maximum of six years on the Board of Trustees. This Trustee turnover helps sustain public trust. Eliminating term limits for the BAR and CHP would mean that members who have already served six full years could serve many more years.

In terms of training, I suggest that volunteers participating in these important governmental roles undergo mandatory training that would at minimum include a review of their statutory mission, all official relevant guidance documents, and all relevant Village codes and procedures. In addition, it would be important for the volunteers to understand the overall land use processes, including the roles of the Planning, Building and Engineering Departments, as well as how the decisions of each volunteer body impacts the other bodies.

Training sessions on Department roles, Village land use procedures and relevant Village codes could be held simultaneously for new members of the Board of Trustees and all other Boards, Councils and Committees where topics are relevant. Sitting members of any body should have the option to attend as a refresher.

You also cited the failure of members to attend official meetings as a rationale for eliminating term limits. If member attendance at meetings is a problem, please deal with this directly. Perhaps the requirement of mandatory attendance at a certain percentage of meetings could be communicated more clearly upfront. This commitment, if violated, could be remedied via a timely meeting of the truant member with body Chair, and if necessary, with the Board of Trustees liaison to that body. Solving an attendance problem by making our system less democratic seems to overshoot the mark.

Finally, the need for maintaining institutional knowledge was also mentioned at the hearing. Institutional knowledge is of great value, and fortunately we have a professional Village staff. There should be a knowledgeable staff person at every BAR meeting who has a comprehensive understanding and familiarity with our Village codes and procedures. This staff member can be called upon to answer questions and can serve as a valuable institutional resource to help these bodies function well.

As you well know, Scarsdale is at a tipping point. The BAR and CHP sit at the epicenter of ongoing struggles that will determine the future physical manifestation of Scarsdale’s values. Our residents have opinions about historic preservation, the aesthetics of our housing stock and neighborhoods, and the significant environmental degradation occurring due to tree loss and unprecedented flooding. To ensure ongoing confidence in our governmental bodies, the public must have confidence that they are both accessible and as democratic in structure as possible.

I urge you not to compromise confidence in our local government. Please maintain our current term limits for the BAR and CHP.

Sincerely yours,
Cynthia Roberts
15 Autenrieth Road
Scarsdale, NY 10583

(Photo Credit: Memorial Garden by Jonathan Mark)

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