The municipal problem solver

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From the board to the bench — James Clynes’ legacy at CB8


  • James G. Clynes served 12 years on the board of Community Board 8, the last three at the helm, before his election last year to a 12-year term as a Civil Court judge. Photo: New York York State Unified Court System

The issues are thorny and complex, the challenges daunting and the advocates disputatious. No matter: Managing the warring parties to forge tough compromises is the mission of the community board chair.

And few public servants have fulfilled that task with more equanimity or dexterity — while also managing to ruffle fewer feathers — than James Clynes, the former chair of Community Board 8 on the Upper East Side.

Make that Judge Clynes. After joining the board in 2006 and serving for 12 years, the last three in the unsalaried No. 1 post, he was elected, unopposed, to a 10-year term as Civil Court judge in November 2017.

A 1984 University of Notre Dame Law School graduate, admitted to the New York bar in 1986, Clynes credits his legal experience — everything from criminal prosecutions to civil and commercial litigation — with helping him maintain order and decorum on a potentially fractious board.

“I’ve been in a courtroom for the last 30 years of my professional life, where everybody has to act with respect for each other, and it teaches you to keep control and avoid chaos,” he said.

That style and background has vested him with the perspective of both advocate and mediator:

“Over the years, it has been wonderful to see Jim as CB8 chair handle many controversial issues masterfully,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the district.

“Whether it was CitiBike expansion, new LinkNYC kiosks, completing the Second Avenue Subway, or perhaps most controversial, crosstown bike lanes, he has always been a strong and effective partner in service to this community,” Kallos added.

As unofficial mayor of the expanse between 59th and 96th Street and Fifth Avenue and Roosevelt Island, Clynes oversaw a district with some 230,000 people.

And these are opinionated East Siders. So he had to juggle close to 230,000 viewpoints on traffic flow, transit woes, landmarks, liquor licenses, zoning texts, building variances, street fairs, sidewalk cafes and other bread-and-butter issues falling within the board’s purview.

“It was like herding kittens, and Jim has done a very good job as a kitten herder,” said Dave Rosenstein, who first joined CB8 in 1991.

Managing 50 civic-minded, volunteer board members, citizen activists in their own right, was also central to his duties, and Clynes was adept at controlling the agenda.

“His even temperament brought a certain air of dignity to the board,” said Rita Popper, who has served on CB 8 for nine years.

Among Clynes’ innovations: He created the board’s first Waterfront Committee to promote access and jump-start improvements to the East River Esplanade. “The idea was that Upper East Siders should enjoy the East River just like Upper West Siders enjoy the Hudson River,” he said.

His job may have looked easy. The truth is, it was anything but. Still, the mission of boosting quality of life, while balancing public interests with commercial and business interests, showcased his role as municipal problem solver.

“There are the bike advocates, and there are those concerned about bike hazards,” Rosenstein said. “There are supporters of development, and those concerned about preservation. There are those sensitive to the need for affordable housing, and those for whom it’s not on their radar.”

How did he keep board proceedings from spinning out of control? “He had a strong hand and was firm in managing the process so we got a lot of things done,” Rosenstein added.

Meanwhile, on Clynes’ watch, the East Side changed forever: “The biggest accomplishment for the community was the completion of the Second Avenue Subway, which has totally improved the lives of Upper East Siders for generations to come,” he said.

Clynes summed up his service on January 25th at his judicial induction ceremony in a downtown courthouse: “I’ll always live in Community Board 8 because the community will always live in me,” he said.

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