BAY RIDGE — Lori Willis first fell in love with Bay Ridge when she was taking part in the 5-Boro Bike Tour and stopped in John Paul Jones Park, one of the citywide tour’s rest stops.
“It was beautiful. I was looking around and I thought what a great place this must be to live,” she said, recalling the lovely recreation area tucked away under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Willis, a native of Long Island, got back on her bike and continued the tour on that day. But she returned to Bay Ridge a few years later, this time to live. She has been living in the community for 20 years. And now, she is helping to set the neighborhood’s agenda as the new chairperson of Community Board 10.
Willis, a lawyer, was elected by her fellow board members in June. She has been on the board for seven years. She presided over her first meeting as chairperson last month.
“It was exciting,” she said of the oath of office ceremony at the start of the meeting in which she and her fellow officers, Vice Chairperson Jayne Marie Capetanakis, Secretary Sandy Vallas and Treasurer Brian Kaszuba were sworn in.
Willis chose a friend, New York State Supreme Court Justice Donald Leo, to administer the oath of office to her. “It was quite lovely,” she said. Leo brought his family to the meeting so that they could all see their friend Willis become the new head of the board.
Several former chairpersons came to the meeting to take part in a Community Board 10 tradition, the “Passing the Gavel” ceremony, in which a gavel is passed from one former chairperson to the next and then handed to the new leader. “It was humbling to see my predecessors,” Willis told the Home Reporter. “They have given me great advice.”
As chairperson, Willis will preside over the board’s monthly meetings, assign members to serve on various committees and set the agenda for issues the board will work on for the 2019-2020 term.
There are 59 community boards in New York City, 18 in Brooklyn. As outlined in the City Charter, community boards are comprised of 50 volunteers who advocate on behalf of neighborhood residents with city government and advise municipal agencies on the needs of the community.
Willis said she has learned a lot during her years on the board. “You try to attend all of the board meetings. You try to listen and pay attention,” she said.
During her tenure as a board member, she has served as parliamentarian and has chaired the Police and Public Safety Committee. She was also a member of the Youth Services, Education and Libraries Committee.
So far, the soft-spoken Willis has taken a light touch to her new role. She has not made any major changes to committee leadership, for example, even though that is within the prerogative of a board chairperson.
But some of the committee chairs have changed simply because the chairpersons themselves were looking to step down. Willis also worked to find spots for new members of the board. “You want to encourage new leadership,” she said. “And we do ask members what committees they want to be on.”
One of the issues that Willis is highlighting is the annual Dyker Heights Christmas lights display. Residents have complained that the extravaganza, which brings thousands of tourists to the neighborhood each holiday season to view the elaborately set-up twinkling lights and giant Santas and oversized Nutcrackers, has become noisy and has generated so much traffic, their side streets are rendered impassable.
Willis recently testified at a hearing of the city’s Consumer Affairs Committee in favor of a bill sponsored by Councilmember Justin Brannan that would ban sidewalk vendors from certain Dyker Heights streets from Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day. “I hope the full Council votes for this measure. There does need to be some solution,” Willis told the Home Reporter.
The Brannan bill “will give our Police Department much more equipment to handle the situation,” Willis added.