Questions from Elected Officials Regarding Private Conservancy at Washington Square: Why didn’t Community Board 2 Hold Off On Vote to Find Out the Answers?

by cathryn on June 21, 2013

Updated 6/22 7:42 a.m. 

Concerns about the proposed Conservancy at Washington Square Park expressed by NY State Assembly Member Deborah Glick and NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, formerly Chair, Community Board 2, were outlined in two letters sent to the Parks Department and the Community Board. I had not seen these previously but they were mentioned — very briefly and only in passing — at last night’s Community Board 2 meeting.

Having now read them, particularly when many of the same questions within them came up again and again last night, it is hard to imagine that members of Community Board 2 chose to gloss over them when it came to whether to approve the Washington Sq Park Conservancy. The attitude it seemed, as expressed by some members of the Board (full report-back coming), was: “There is nothing to look into here, everything is fine, these are nice civic-minded ladies, we have to act now or the conservancy train will keep rolling along without us.”  Hmmm.

(It was clear, as The Villager editorial pointed out, that the Parks Department was very “invested” in the decision of the board supporting the Conservancy — why?? would be good to know. Community Board members were wrong in this assumption that the Conservancy/Parks Department did not need them to proceed. They did.)

Community Board 2 member Coral Dawson was a perfect example. After the substitute resolution was introduced — to postpone the vote and readdress this in September when more information (such as the organization’s bylaws) had been gathered — and debate was going on amidst the board, she jumped up. She said she had not planned to speak but when she heard all this debate and objection around the Conservancy, she had to speak up — she said that this wasso obvious” [that the Conservancy should be voted in favor of]. She just couldn’t understand how anyone had a problem with it. “Our role is to support civic-minded organizations. Can you go through a zillion hoops here? It’s ABSURD.”

Apparently, Ms. Dawson either did not read Deborah Glick’s and Brad Hoylman’s letters or else thought they held no merit. Well, I’d like you to read Deborah Glick’s letter below, and, based on her substantial questions — note: she met with the Conservancy founders — tell me how a board could not at least hit pause on the whole thing.

I spoke with Deborah Glick’s Chief of Staff Matt Borden this afternoon. I told him I was impressed with the obvious research demonstrated by the questions posed within the letters, particularly the most recent one. I asked him, “How did you come to know so much and arrive at this level of detail and these questions?”

He said, “We had a meeting with the folks involved with the group [Conservancy members] and found there were questions that needed to be answered. We didn’t feel the Community Board’s resolution addressed the outstanding issues that we’d thought about. Without seeing the [conservancy] bylaws, it is hard to take at face value.”

As far as the final vote (to approve), he said it was clear there was not a level of confidence in the vote “when you look at how the board voted.” He continued, “There were so many votes against it. That is something you don’t usually see.”

June 2013 From Assemblymember Deborah L. Glick, Report to the Village and SoHo:

Raising Additional Questions about a Conservancy

I’m very pleased that there is a small group of well-intentioned, concerned citizens, trying to address the lack of resources offered to Washington Square Park by the Department of Parks through the creation of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. I do not want to impune the good nature and civic spirit of those who advance this idea locally. I am very grateful to those who take an interest in the Park and recognize gaps in service, such as the trash in the Park not being collected often enough and general maintenance issues that need to be addressed. However, I still have some questions about the arrangement for the structure of this partnership.

It is my understanding that the new Department of Parks employee is both the Washington Square Park Administrator and the Executive Director of the non-profit, Washington Square Park Conservancy. During the CB2 Parks Committee meeting, it was determined that at this point, only the Department of Parks will be paying her salary. I find it unacceptable to have tax payer money fund the salary of the Executive Director of a non-profit which the community has had no input in vetting. Will the Conservancy be contributing to her salary in the future? Why was this group chosen instead of one of the many advocacy groups that currently exist for Washington Square Park? What happens if there is a conflict in the role of Administrator and the Executive Director- which allegiance takes priority?

There are many outstanding questions about the finances and goals of the Conservancy as well. What are the full range of financial interactions between the Conservancy and the Department of Parks? Will the financial commitment from the Department of Parks be decreased at any point due to the existence of a Conservancy? What happens if the Conservancy fails to meet fundraising goals?

We have been told that we can’t get answers to many questions about longer financial plans or details of long term goals from the Conservancy because the organization is just starting to form. Yet this is the only chance the community has to ask questions and get answers. Since these private discussions have been ongoing for the last year, it is possible that more community input could have helped shape these by now. As it stands, I believe there are too many unanswered questions about the financial goals, implications and desires of the Conservancy to fully understand what this organization will do to and for the community, and I urge the Community Board to hold off on endorsing this plan before all details are presented.

I’m sure there are additional questions I could posit, but I think you get the point. We have a great neighborhood park that is also one of the most iconic parks in the world. That is all the more reason for the City to maintain it properly. I am grateful for the dedicated community members who are working to address the needs in Washington Square Park and hope that we can work together to do so in a way that does not jeopardize the autonomy of the park or relieve the Department of Parks from its responsibility.

Brad Hoylman

Letter from New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick to NYC Parks Commissioner Veronica White:

April 29, 2013

Veronica White, Commissioner
Department of Parks and Recreation
The Arsenal, Central Park
New York, NY, 10065

Dear Commissioner White,

We are dismayed that the Department of Parks has been having private conversations about the formation of a Conservancy for Washington Square Park without public discussion or outreach. We have generally found Manhattan Borough Commissioner William Castro to be accessible and available to the community, which adds to our confusion and disappointment that these conversations were neither public, nor were the Community Board or elected officials informed they were going on. We hope that the Department of Parks will rectify this mistake by engaging in an open, public process which includes meetings with Community Board 2 and time for the public to discuss the appropriateness of such a plan, prior to any official action being taken.

Although we appreciate the upgrades and renovations that the Department of Parks has made to Washington Square Park over the past few years, it seems short-sighted if these upgrades were made knowing there were not sufficient funds for the maintenance of the park going forward. For example, the fountain was moved at huge expense. We understand that capital and operating budgets are separate; however, maybe this alteration could have been forgone if Parks knew that after completion, there would not be money to continue the general upkeep of the park.

The Department of Parks is a City agency; the public knows the source of its funding, who is responsible for its management and the policy making structure. I understand the Department is confronted with shrinking resources but privatization of public spaces is not appropriate. Once a Conservancy is established, the transparency associated with Parks Department oversight will be diminished and the public may be left without a clear understanding of how policies are made or the source of the park’s funds and perhaps most importantly, the connection between such funding and future park policies.

It is unacceptable for the City of New York to get out of the business of maintaining and being responsible for open green space. Parks are a fundamental part of our society and the Department of Parks and the City of New York, not private citizens, are responsible for ensuring that we have them for generations to come.

It is now, and has always been, terrific when individual citizens or a group of citizens are interested in assisting their local park. Sometimes this is a clean up effort, or local gardeners enjoying a chance to plant, or when their local park becomes their favorite charity. However, that is vastly different from a formal conservancy that weighs in on policy matters.

It seems that the process for the creation of a Conservancy thus far has intentionally been done quickly and quietly because the Department of Parks understands full-well that the community would have strong opinions if they knew of this plan. We urge you to slow down and engage in the public discourse that this topic deserves and allow for a democratic process.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Deborah J. Glick, Assemblymember         Brad Hoylman, State Senator

CC: William Castro, Manhattan Borough Commissioner
Community Board 2

l-to-r: C.B. 2 Chair David Gruber, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Brad Hoylman, daughter Stella, City Council Member Margaret Chin, NY State Assemblymember Deborah Glick – recent opening Adrienne’s Garden

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Georgia June 21, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Thank you for sharing these letters. Now am absolutely flabbergasted by the decision of CB2.

Reply

cathryn June 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Hi Georgia,

You’re welcome and I am in total agreement! “absolutely flabbergasted” is the perfect way to frame it.

Cathryn.

Reply

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