Community Board 2 Parks Committee Votes in Favor of WSP Private Conservancy Based on Limited Information Offered, Ignoring Public Input – Part II

Updated 6:25 p.m.

Continued from yesterday, 6/13: Report-back: Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meets on WSP Private Conservancy – Part I
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Organizational Structure of the Conservancy – Not Much Offered

Conservancy member Veronica Bulgari said at the meeting “we recognize biases against the word [Conservancy].” The founding members stated that all the other names they looked into as alternatives were taken (such as Friends of Washington Square Park, Washington Square Park Association, I don’t know what else …).

It’s not just the word that is troubling, although considering the community expressly stating that it did not want a Conservancy, the fact that they used the word Conservancy is just that much more curious and perhaps abrasive. (Oh, right, they say they had no idea about this opposition.) Conservancy has an implication and also a reality as to how it is implemented at other parks.

The board members stated at the meeting that Sarah Neilson is only being paid by the Parks Department and not by the Conservancy. Seeing how lucrative Conservancy jobs are (see next paragraph), it is hard to imagine that it will remain that way. Yet no information was forthcoming on that topic at the meeting – and it was not broached further by the Parks Committee.

From my “Talking Point” in this week’s Villager:

In fact, conservancy directors are paid well at the larger parks, double-dipping salaries from the city’s Parks Department as well as the conservancy. According to fiscal year 2012 tax filings, the salary for Douglas Blonsky, head of the Central Park Conservancy, was $456,319. Bryant Park Corporation Executive Director Daniel Biederman made $240,701 in 2011. Madison Square Park Conservancy President Debbie Landau brought home $245,669 in 2011. Aimee Boden, at the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, received $62,745 in 2011 from the foundation, and $122,807 from the city as park administrator, totaling $185,552.

As I mentioned in Part I, there were no bylaws or mission statement presented. Community member Pete Davies asked if they had “a projected budget, a 1st year budget… 5 year budget.” The answer, expressed somewhat sheepishly, was no.

Although they seemed like decent, well-intentioned people, I couldn’t help wondering how much was not being revealed – purposefully perhaps?

Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro tried to put fear in people’s minds as a rationale for supporting the Conservancy at Washington Square, even referencing Central Park in the 1970s(!) and citing the Central Park Conservancy as having “brought Central Park back from disaster.” Oh dear.

Elizabeth Ely said the people who will be on their board are “people who are impassioned about Washington Square Park.”

Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber asked if a “financial contribution was mandatory” to be on the board. Ely said “no” as long as the person offers something (such as a talent or skill, it does not have to be money, Ely said).

Sarah Neilson was asked how her responsibilities would compare to her predecessor, former WSP Administrator Rebecca Ferguson, and she said that her responsibilities and role would remain the same.

John Leguizamo

Other commentary

Board member Justine Leguizamo’s husband, actor and comedian John Leguizamo, came before the Community Board. He said, “I applaud anyone who takes action to make the park better, safer and more beautiful.”

I wondered if he really knew all the issues.

Geoffrey Croft from New York City Park Advocates said that the city should fund and run its parks. At the meeting, he spoke of the disparities between the care given parks city-wide. Croft has been quoted often in the press noting that when private groups run our city parks in wealthy neighborhoods, this just increases the notable disparities with parks in other, poorer neighborhoods.

Andrew Berman from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation(GVSHP) spoke towards the very end of the meeting. Two of his organization’s board members have founded the Washington Square Park Conservancy – Justine Leguizamo and Elizabeth Ely – so it should not have surprised me that he was there (yet it did).

A note – Washington Square Park is not the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation – and the structure and goals for the park are very different from that organization. Notably, GVSHP took no position on the redesign of the park, including the moving of the park’s historic fountain. Park redesigner George Vellonakis, a controversial and polarizing figure, previously sat on the GVSHP board himself. So, I can’t say I think that Berman is coming before the Community Board with much integrity in relation to Washington Square Park (while I have in the past respected his work on other issues, I may rethink that now).

Berman stated that he felt this was “a healthy and important debate … [the] issue of transparency in government [and that the idea] be fully vetted. … That said, we think it’s a good thing for people to get involved in public amenities.” He went on to say he supported the Conservancy for Washington Square Park. Surprising? No.

The Parks Committee Vote in Executive Session on WSP Conservancy

After much of the general public left the meeting, the Parks Committee held an “executive session” with a cursory discussion about the Conservancy, barely touching upon what was brought up at the meeting by the general public, perhaps thinking they know best.

Another non-surprise: Former Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman (a former Parks Department employee) made his own case for the Conservancy, again citing Central Park budget issues in the 1970s (??). Member Coral Dawson said she’d had issues with the Parks Department at Seravalli Playground as if that was reason enough to embolden a private entity to take charge at Washington Square.

The Parks Department is not perfect, we know this, but when previous WSP Administrator Rebecca Ferguson was managing the park, there was a clear connection between the community and the park. It worked – not perfectly but pretty well. (The problem came when Union Square Park was added to Ferguson’s responsibilities – it was too much.) Now the city is trying to slyly shift the responsibility to a private organization.

In what had to be one of the quickest “discussions” ever, instead of even attempting to gather additional information before voting, such as organizational documents filed to the State of New York by the Conservancy, or seriously taking concerns expressed by the public into account, the Parks Committee voted in favor of a private Conservancy. I believe they think they can put some form of ‘conditions’ on this entity but this is a very slippery slope. Only public member of the committee, Sharon Woolums, took a brave stance and voted no. Woolums didn’t feel she was ready to vote and sought additional materials, such as the organization’s bylaws or mission statement, to further understand the Conservancy’s proposed structure and goals.

Yet acting Parks Committee chair Susanna Aaron (taking the place of Rich Caccapolo who was not present) said that she didn’t think the Conservancy board had those materials yet and shut down the discussion and moved for a vote ignoring Woolums’ objection. And if this was accurate – that these documents did not exist? Wouldn’t that further bolster the case for waiting to vote on the issue? In fact, a committee member earlier had stated that in order to file the 501(c)3, the Conservancy board would have needed to outline and file these documents.

And during the earlier public portion of the meeting, Conservancy board member Gwen Evans said they waited to come before the community until “we had our 501(c)3 in place.” Yet, despite this statement (that Aaron did not recall), no other board member spoke up and contradicted what Aaron had said or supported Woolums’ request.

By accepting this organization, not voting “no,” and believing they can put some “controls” on this private organization, the Parks Committee is missing the larger picture.

By having WSP Administrator Sarah Neilson, a Parks Department employee, as their “executive director,” it appears the Conservancy is priming itself for a larger role at the park.

Without seeing the bylaws or mission statement, how in good conscience could the Parks Committee of C.B. 2 vote on this issue?

Why did the Parks Committee rush to vote? 

The full Community Board may be voting on the Parks Committee’s resolution Thursday, June 20th, 6 p.m. Scholastic Auditorium 557 Broadway (betw. Spring and Prince), auditorium

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My “Talking Point” on the issue in this week’s Villager:
Jane (Jacobs) and the death and life of a great American park

* WSP Blog: coverage of private conservancy at Washington Square Park

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6 thoughts on “Community Board 2 Parks Committee Votes in Favor of WSP Private Conservancy Based on Limited Information Offered, Ignoring Public Input – Part II”

  1. I reported the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy to the IRS (after reviewing their tax filings and comparing them to the reality of the park and info I found online regarding donations) and so was responsible for having their 501(3)c status revoked.

    I believe these Conservancies are places like off-shore accounts where the wealthy can launder their ill-gotten gains without having to explain their sources or pay taxes on them. Donors are straw men as are those who receive salaries from the Conservancy.

  2. Who is charged with authorizing a conservancy for city parks? I thought th Community Board only had advisory “powers”. Given the stature of WSP and the catchment area it serves, this proposal needs to be vetted more widely and for a longer period of time.

    • The Community Board only has advisory powers. They are supposed to represent the opinions of the community they serve.

  3. Monica, that is fascinating. Can you explain either publicly or privately how you had Carl Schurz Park Conservancy 501 (c)3 revoked? I agree that there is a bigger ‘game’ here than what meets the eye — these Conservancy and private orgs. are getting away with seeming like benevolent individuals when it’s maybe a bit of a scam, as you suggest.

    Georgia, I agree with you that it would seem like it would come before larger oversight. Even the elected officials – other than Deborah Glick – have barely addressed. (NYS Senator, former CB2 Chair) Brad Hoylman gave me that quote … I don’t expect (NYC City Council Member) Margaret Chin to be ‘against’ the idea or even pipe in at this late stage on Washington Square Park, on which she has been entirely silent. However, reaching out to her even still … ? Maybe not a bad idea, for what it’s worth.

    If you can think of some other people/entities to reach out to, I’d say more power to you. The Parks Committee, which has had little to do with Washington Square Park over the last at least three years, during which time the composition of the board has changed, perhaps doesn’t quite grasp what they are dealing with. They are getting swayed by the idea that these are just four nice women who just want to start gardening programs. Hmm. Right.

    They are used to even the smallest Village parks having a private entity attached to them. While I might disagree with that as the way to go in general, that does not equate to Washington Square Park, their largest and most important park.

    That being said, I agree that this needs to be vetted for a much longer period of time. The Conservancy ‘powers that be’ and the Parks Department want to push it through as quickly as possible. The Conservancy certainly took its time before coming before the Community board so… that should be factored in. There is no rush, per se.

    Monica is right that the Community Board is “advisory” but in many instances that “advisory power” is very potent. So I would not underestimate that and I hope that the board is not. And, yes, they are supposed to represent the opinions of the community “they serve.”

    Thanks ladies!! Please keep commenting. I learn and ideas ‘come to me’ from the comments often. Brainstorming is welcome.

    best,
    Cathryn.

  4. Dear Mr. Castro,

    Conservancies themselves receive a license from the parks department for a concession, just like Shake Shack in Madison Square Park does. Shouldn’t the selection of conservancies undergo an RFP process, the way the selection of vendors for parks does?

    The conservancy receives the concession of ‘you get to offer licenses to for-profits to use the park in profitmaking activities, and in exchange you get to keep part of the revenues for your nonprofit activities’. In effect, the public resource of the park is being licensed out to commercial entities, just with a buffer between this action and the city itself.

    There seems to be neither an RFP (Request for Proposal) nor a sole-source contract qualification process for the conservancies themselves. If the parks can let (as it did last fall) an RFP for Shake Shack’s spot in Madison Square park, explicitly seeking any vendor who could offer to do better, why can’t parks go about selecting a conservancy contractor as well by an open process seeking the most beneficial proposal? And why hasn’t this happened up to now for other parks?

    This matter of allowing a spontaneously formed private group to lobby behind the scenes with caviar parties to obtain a lucrative (high salaried) and influential (control of a park) sole-source contracts is highly irregular. It is well known that parks conservancies which start with a small group end up being transformed a few years later into the full-blown contract-letting, self-selecting-Board engines that should have been RFP’d in the first place.

    Community Board 2: please entertain the idea that you should abstain from voting any approval of a conservancy until the process for selecting conservancies is cleaned up.

    References:
    Parks dept business opportunities: http://www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/business
    Parks dept RFPs: http://www.nycgovparks.org/opportunities/concessions/rfps-rfbs-rfeis )

  5. Guest,

    These are great, thought provoking questions. They definitely need to be given further credence by the Community Board and perhaps the City Council as well.

    I’d be interested in additional thoughts on this.

    Thanks!

    Cathryn.

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