`IN every little town in New England, there's a board made up of a druggist, a housewife, and so on, who sit up nights determining land use,'' says Kent Barwick. But in New York City, he observes, government has lost its connection with the communities it is sworn to serve. Community advocates such as Mr. Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, a 100-year-old civic group that battles for city planning and building preservation, have long faced a formidable and often monolithic foe: The New York Board of Estimate. An eight-member body, the Board of Estimate makes nearly all zoning and land-use decisions for the city of 7 million.
But things are about to change in a big way in America's biggest city. The United States Supreme Court ruled March 22 that New York's government is unconstitutional. It is because the Board of Estimate, which also decides everything from city budgets, contracts, and franchises, to water rates, violates the one-person one-vote principle by giving Little Staten Island, with 400,000 residents, and Brooklyn, with its 2 million inhabitants, one vote each.
Suddenly, it's an exciting time in New York civic affairs as discussions center on a virtual reinvention of government in compliance with the court decision - all against a backdrop of one of the city's most contested mayoral elections in 20 years.
Now it is up to the city's Charter Revision Commission to propose a new governmental plan for submission to voters. The commission was appointed by the mayor two years ago, its work largely ignored until the court ruling. It is likely to advise jettisoning the nearly century-old Board of Estimate, and expanding both the size and influence of the 35-member City Council. Although it passes laws and shares budget responsibility with the board, the council is currently a largely innocuous body not known for drawing stellar performers. THE board that the high court ruled against is an unusual legislative-administrative amalgam unlike any in America. With origins in the 1898 merger of several counties which created New York City, it preserved the voices of the counties (now ``boroughs''), and provided a check on the mayor's powers. All five borough presidents have one vote, while the mayor, comptroller, and City Council president have two apiece. That structure gives the three citywide officials more votes than all five borough presidents combined.
The court's decision delighted minorities, who hold just two board votes, although they make up more than half of the city's population. In mostly white Staten Island, however, officials reacted initially by threatening to secede if the borough loses its big voice in city decisions.
Neighborhood activists, including the attorney for the winning side in the Supreme Court case, say the big issue of who controls power in New York was not addressed by the court. They contend that Mayor Edward Koch - and the Board of Estimate, which he often blames for vetoing his good ideas - are together responsible for a decline in the quality of life. Lack of planning and incoherence policies are apparent, they say, when high-rent apartments spring up everywhere while tens of thousands are homeless, and when patches of sky and greenery daily grow more scarce.
Even as the city's newspapers trumpeted the court's decision in banner headlines, voters interviewed about the board said they knew little or nothing about it. Reform advocates say this points up a crying need for a government that average people can understand and have faith in.
But Comptroller Harrison Goldin and Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, both board members and mayoral candidates, praised the board for giving the boroughs a voice. Richard Ravitch, another mayoral candidate who is a builder, developer, and former head of the Charter Revision Commission, says the Board of Estimate plays an important role in land-use matters. ``Having a board on which the mayor doesn't have absolute control is necessary,'' he says. ``I would try to clone it as closely as possible.''
Critics, however, charge heavy developer influence over the board.
``Developers make virtually all of the contributions to the Board of Estimate,'' says Richard Emery, the lawyer for the group of Brooklyn residents who brought the suit eight years ago. ``That's why you see so much of a hodge-podge of planning, and its dire effects on New York.''
Mr. Emery, who termed the city ``a mess,'' says that ``the only ones that compare are frontier towns. Here, it's just `grab a buck' and build.'' MAYOR Koch says donations get developers access to officials, not favors. Still those on the other side say they do not even get that. Barwick, whose group has been fighting off an enormous development overlooking Central Park they say would shadow the much-used park, says board hearings are perfunctory and often staged.
``The Board of Estimate is largely a depressing lesson in civics because they arrange the calendar in such a way to thwart anybody who wants to testify.'' Barwick says the board often delays consideration of major issues until the press goes home.
It all happens backstage,'' he says. ``Then the players come on stage at 1 or 2 in the morning to read prepared statements.''
Neighborhood advocates such as Emery say so much responsibility should never again be in so few hands. Now, he contends, it's time to start ``planning for crises rather than reacting to them.''
Instead of ad hoc mayoral commissions, Emery urges long-term strategies, not just in real estate, but in health, housing, criminal justice, infrastructure (bridges and tunnels), and education - planning ``into the 21st century instead of just to the next election.''
The way to do this, Emery says, is through powerful neighborhood boards with professional staffs, and members appointed by the borough presidents, council members, and the mayor.
Frederick Schwarz, head of the Charter Commission, is calling for enhancing the voice of minorities and political parties other than the dominant Democrats. One scenario has a two-house legislature, with borough presidents still playing a big role.
Whatever the commission's recommendations, it must make them quickly, before the deadline for submitting measures for the November ballot, when voters will choose a mayor and other officials. Emery says the multitude of choices are interrelated.
``Without the Board of Estimate to blame, the mayor will be more accountable,'' Emery says. ``The responsiveness of government will be very different and people will see it.