Updated January 16th, 7:49 a.m.
Bill de Blasio wrote a letter to Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro citing “concerns” from his constituents over “insufficient transparency [and] community involvement” in relation to a conservancy at Washington Square Park in August 2013 as Public Advocate.
Four months later, shortly before de Blasio was sworn in as Mayor, Castro responded (indented are Castro’s words, and, in between paragraphs, my analysis of what this letter is really demonstrating):
December 5, 2013
Dear Public Advocate de Blasio,
Thank you for taking the time to inquire about the creation of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. I apologize for the delay in responding to your letter.
It took four months for Bill Castro to respond to Bill de Blasio’s letter sent to the Manhattan Parks Commissioner on August 7, 2013 citing “concerns over transparency and community involvement in the creation of the Conservancy.” It’s possible there would have been no response if the then-Public Advocate hadn’t won a certain election on November 5, 2013, soon on his way to become the city’s Mayor. The Public Advocate’s office told me a few months back that Mr. Castro was typically responsive to them which makes the fact that he was unusually quiet for so long, only responding when prodded, perhaps even more revealing.
The creation of this organization has probably undergone more scrutiny than almost any other partnership group that we work with.
Is this true? Someone involved in oversight of city parks who works with the “non-profits” that have been created for so many parks under Mayor Bloomberg said to me: “The Washington Square Park Conservancy situation was very unusual.” How so, I asked? “Well, most of these groups are built up from the grassroots and take ten years to get to that point. The way that was created was not how it’s usually done. It was very unusual.”
The Conservancy four founding members – Elizabeth Ely, Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans, and Justine Leguizamo – had intensive discussions with Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro. The goal: to cover up any “murky areas” (as Conservancy “Chairman” Ely referred to them in an email obtained by this blog) to which the public, having voted down a private conservancy at Washington Square Park for the last twelve years, would object. The result: anything controversial was hidden, including information well known to those involved, in their joint presentation June 5th before Community Board 2.
The Washington Square Park Conservancy’s “creation” was done behind closed doors over two years with the assistance of Parks’ Bill Castro and other Parks Department officials. The organization’s incorporation, bylaws, non-profit status, 501(c)3 documents were all completed before the public ever got word of the very existence of these four women’s privatization project. When the founders finally came before the community, any intended public “scrutiny” was met with lies, omissions, evasions and broad misrepresentations.
The founding members of the Conservancy reached out to Community Board 2-Manhattan’s leadership early on in the summer of 2012 to discuss their initial idea, and also met with the Washington Square Association and the Village Alliance BID. They met with the Community Board chair again last March when we hired the Park Administrator.
Community Board 2-Manhattan’s “leadership” — this basically refers to Community Board 2 Chair David Gruber. Gruber chose not to share the information about the impending formation of the Conservancy with most members of the Community Board or with the public at large – who might have had interest in this development at the Board’s largest and most important park. Gruber had in fact been involved in 2004 with a group that was attempting to push a private conservancy onto Washington Square — which did not succeed. It’s not surprising that Gruber himself would be in favor of the model since he is a real estate broker who fancies himself a wheeler-dealer in Greenwich Village; what is surprising is how much of this information he kept to himself. (And how, now, Gruber continues to not at least show some alarm at the level of deception and manipulation by this private group – but that’s another post.)
During the spring the Conservancy members responded to a full range of questions at a well-attended public meeting held by the board’s parks committee on June 5. The committee then voted 11-1 in support of the Conservancy.
Well, yes, that is true “the Conservancy members responded” – in a sense. Their responses were so lacking in substance: we now know why – Castro coached the women to hide anything substantive in order to get the Community Board’s “approval” — as well as public acquiescence. Statements made (or not made) at this meeting raised more questions than they answered.*
Parks Committee “Public member” Sharon Woolums asked to see more information before a vote on the conservancy was taken. Acting chair Susanna Aaron shot this down, saying she didn’t think they had the information Woolums was requesting. (It turns out they did. Why Aaron was in such a rush for this vote to occur right then and there remains suspect.) Woolums was the only member of the Parks Committee who voted “no” to approving the private conservancy.
Information uncovered by this blog since then documents: secret meetings with NYU, secret money from NYU, vast plans for programming never revealed, a four year budget which they said they did not have, future license agreement – all kept from the public, intentionally.
They [conservancy] spoke at the full board meeting on June 20, whereupon the board overwhelmingly voted 31-13 to approve the parks committee’s resolution.
The day after the Community Board’s vote, I spoke with Matt Borden, Assembly Member Deborah Glick’s Chief of Staff, and he said the opposite: stating that 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.”
And note: the conservancy “spoke” at the meeting, only in the context that they got up to speak during public comment, as did others in opposition to their private group.
The Conservancy’s role will be that of a typical “friends-of” park group – to enlist volunteers, sponsor programming and raise funds to support the park. For example, it has already raised funds to pay for a Parks Department playground associate to run kids’ programs last summer and to extend the Parks’ maintenance crew’s assignment in this heavily used park for an extra month this fall as well as worked with Parks on four volunteer gardening events. There were all valuable additions to the park and provided a clear benefit to the public.
This doesn’t really answer questions as to why this “friends” group couldn’t do the following: (1) act as existing groups around the park – Friends of Washington Square Park, Washington Square Association, etc. – raise funds without too much controlling influence; (2) raise money and let the Parks Department decide what becomes of it and where it goes. This is how it should be.
Parks’ financial commitment to the park will remain the same (contingent upon our regular expense budget); the Conservancy’s support will be supplementary. Most important, NYC Parks will continue to have the full responsibility for managing and operating the park.
For the most part, the city’s Parks Department’s budget covered all expenses related to Washington Square Park in 2013. Why this big push for a private conservancy at a park that was functioning pretty well?
As for the last sentence about “managing and operating the park,” the Parks Department likes to repeat this last sentence a lot, but, as we saw with the “hot dog” vendor issue, it is easy enough for private, wealthy individuals to influence matters and then the Parks Department will say, ‘oh but it was really our decision’ – such as the situation when this affluent group of neighbors formed themselves into a private conservancy and then said they don’t want “unsightly” hot dog carts at the park so first they are moved “away from the Arch view corridor” and later all the way out of the park. As we know, public pressure reversed this decision (only because the public was aware of it – much of what happens behind closed doors will never be revealed to the public).
The Conservancy’s mission statement perfectly expresses the reason why they have taken the trouble to create this organization:
The Washington Square Park Conservancy is a not for profit organization working with the New York City Parks Department and other neighborhood groups to ensure that Washington Square Park continues as a diverse and historical urban green space through engaging volunteers and raising funds to keep the park clean, safe and beautiful.
The organization’s 501(c)3 documents filed April 26, 2013 outline plans that go far beyond “engaging volunteers and raising funds.” And despite having filed these detailed documents in late April, the Conservancy Four would come before the Community Board in early June with misrepresentations and mistruths inferring that they were just figuring all this out. Yet their organization’s plans had been carefully outlined in the 501(c)3 documents (information they omitted discussing) filed in April.
We do not have a license or other formal agreement with the Conservancy because it is not assuming any maintenance or operating responsibilities or overseeing any capital work in the park. Its role, as described above, is limited.
As someone else noted to me, the above statements are very intentionally written in the present tense. Castro says: “We do not have a license or other formal agreement” – as of NOW. “Its [the conservancy’s] role… is limited” – as of NOW.
It is suspect that this same organization expressed in emails in April 2013 that they “looked forward to signing a license agreement with the city.” License agreement equals operating and maintaining the park, far beyond a “limited” role.
With respect to the responsibilities of the Park Administrator, who also serves as the Executive Director of the Conservancy, this dual role is not unusual; we have a number of Parks staff who serve as both park administrator and executive director of a conservancy or friends group. We have found that it works to our mutual benefit and ensures that the group is working in sync with the Parks’ objectives and not using any of the funds it raises for unnecessary administrative expenses. I am enclosing a letter from the Conflicts of Interest Board delineating Sarah Nielson’s responsibilities in each position and confirming that she can serve in this dual role.
While it’s true that other parks have this set up with the “dual role,” that does not mean this is a good thing. It’s just something they have all gotten away with. The public would be far better served if private organizations and public parks were separated. There is a cloak in secrecy atmosphere going on with these arrangements.
The “Conflicts of Interest Board” letter brings up its own problems. It focuses on signing off on “raising funds” for the park. If “raising funds” is so important, why can’t Neilson, as Washington Square Park Administrator, “raise funds” for the city’s Parks Department, not a private conservancy? (This organization, by the way, insisted again and again, it was not really a conservancy, they just couldn’t find another name.)
As you requested, I am also enclosing a copy of the Conservancy’s by-laws, which have been provided to Community board 2 and The Villager newspaper. In addition, the group has received 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service and will follow all of the laws and regulations required of that status.
The Conservancy’s by-laws were only provided to The Villager after this blog started questioning the fact that the Community Board had not seen the bylaws, per its own resolution which stated “approval” was “conditional” with “stipulations.”
Finally, as a direct result of the “Gerson-Quinn Letter,” the Conservancy has invited Council Member Margaret Chin and the chair of Community Board 2 to have ex-officio seats on the board, and they have both accepted – a further indication that the Conservancy plans to have “transparency and community involvement” in its ongoing activities.
Note: Another use of a specific tense, this time future tense: Castro says that the Conservancy “plans” to have “transparency and community involvement” — “plans” indicating future plans, not what has to date transpired which clearly has not been “transparent,” nor did it entail ‘community involvement’.
The “Gerson-Quinn Letter” addressed the redesign of the park, not what would happen afterwards. Yes, there was a paragraph about a possible organization in the future “raising funds” — but as former Council Member Alan Gerson himself outlined to me — if such an entity became involved, he said, it was “absolutely clear” to the Parks Department that it would be created with “community oversight and input.” This organization was not formed in this manner, by any means.
All in all, Parks believes that the Washington Square Park Conservancy will grow to become an excellent example of a public-private partnership that will help this historic park become an even greater resource for the residents of the Village and the City as a whole.
This is the first time Castro has ever used the word “public-private partnership.” He has consistently worked to downplay the role of this group. Via Wikipedia, the definition of “public-private partnership” (sometimes referred to as P3 or PPP) is:
“PPP involves a contract between a public sector authority and a private party, in which the private party provides a public service or project and assumes substantial financial, technical and operational risk in the project.”
That is way outside the scope of that “little friends’ group” and falls more in line with a license agreement scenario – which the Community Board resolution stipulates against – guaranteeing a much larger role in ‘running’ Washington Square Park. Private groups running our public parks have some clearly demonstrated problems. (More at this link.)
Please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions.
Additional WSP Blog comment: This private conservancy group, from all the documentation obtained by this blog, had grand plans: plans intentionally kept – each step of the way – from the public in order to force a privatization of public space upon Washington Square Park. Commissioner Castro was one of the key orchestrators and manipulators of this plan; a deception of the public, demonstrating an intentional lack of transparent process.
* * *
Some additional information:
* In relation to Conservancy’s overall plans as expressed at the one public meeting June 5th: In relation to a budget, they stated, somewhat sheepishly, they didn’t have one (yet a four year budget was submitted to New York State with figures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars). The four women focused on activities for themselves of raising funds, recruiting volunteers and planting daffodils… oh and maybe “a book club.” (The film festivals and theatrical productions their 501(c)3 application outlines were never mentioned). Their larger intentions, structure, future “stipend” to their Executive Director were all left unmentioned. The secret meetings with NYU higher-ups and NYU money for them to spend ($500,000 “Gift to the Park) omitted from any discussion.
Community Board 2 and the public have the chance to say now… enough! At this point, how can there be any confidence in this private group and what led up to its “approval?”
IF Washington Square Park needs funds – and that has never been clearly demonstrated – let’s start anew and find a new model for Greenwich Village and this very important public space.
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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:
Everything ever written here at WSP Blog on private conservancy at Washington Square Park!
Bill de Blasio As Public Advocate Cites “Concerns” over “Insufficient Transparency, Community Involvement” in Letter to Parks Department Plus 501(c)3 Docs, More January 6, 2014
Washington Square Park Conservancy Timeline can be found here.
Coverage of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee Meeting June 5, 2013 can be found here.
Coverage of Full Community Board Meeting June 20, 2013 Report-back: C.B. 2 Vote on Washington Square Park Conservancy
What was Known Yet Concealed by Private Conservancy Founders: KEY DOCUMENTATION obtained by WSP Blog.
— This is Part VI in a series. See Blog left hand side bar for the rest or visit this page.