Questions & Concerns Persist Post-Community Board 2 Meeting on Washington Sq Park Private Conservancy – Part II

Updated 3/21 (see ‘Added note’ under Budget)

This is a report-back of Community Board 2 Parks Committee’s meeting on March 5th, 2014 in which Washington Square Park and Washington Square Park Conservancy were discussed. Continued from Part I

The room

At one point during the March 5th meeting of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee, with agenda items of both Washington Square Park and the Washington Square Park Conservancy, committee chair Rich Caccappolo stated that “There have been claims that this board rushed the decision [on approving the conservancy].” That sentiment still hangs over this C.B.2, and that was evident throughout the meeting.

Audience member Sue Ellen said that there was “a sense of secrecy over how things are being done” and [a sense that there was] “collusion between the conservancy and the Parks Department.”

Another person said “residents of the Village have become resentful of the conservancy” and that Sarah Neilson, as a “public employee … shouldn’t be an active participant. … There is an appearance of conflict of interest [and] it makes the community uncomfortable.”

Neilson responded that there are “two solid checks and balances” to any problems that might arise from her “dual role” as Washington Square Park Administrator, working for the city’s Parks Department, and as Executive Director of the conservancy. In Neilson’s view, the fact a member of Community Board 2 is on the board – C.B. 2 member Maria Passanante-Derr, a member of the Parks Committee, present at the meeting – and also City Council Member Margaret Chin’s “office” should alleviate concerns of any future problems or conflicts.

I asserted that there are problems with the conservancy model. Tobi Bergman (former chair of the Parks Committee and a former Parks Department employee) rushed to respond: “That’s an opinion.” I mentioned the fact that the NY City Council had to hold a whole hearing on conservancies [due to complaints].

Caccappolo said some of the comments [directed at the Board and the Conservancy] have been “mean.” He said the Board is there to help “mitigate fears” — mitigating of fears was a repeated theme throughout the evening.

Two Washington Square Park Conservancy founding members were present: organization Chairman Elizabeth (Betsey) Ely and Treasurer Gwen Evans. Another Conservancy Board member, John Van Name, attended and spoke intermittently.

AREAS ON WHICH THE PRIVATE GROUP SAID THEY’D BE FOCUSING

The Conservancy mentioned that they had “funded” a playground associate last summer and would be providing funds for maintenance staff to continue for one month after the summer season. Their areas of focus, they said, are “not things Parks [Department] has historically provided,” and would be items such as: maintenance crew evening hours in summer, seasonal gardener, plant materials, and playground associate.

A question was asked … what if the Parks Department starts reducing money to Washington Square Park and begins relying more on private donations through the conservancy? Maria Derr jumped in and said that the goal was “not to reduce parks budget.”

But, at Prospect Park, the Prospect Park Alliance (which has been in existence for decades) began with 60% funding by the city for the park and that has shrunk to 40%. Nonetheless, Neilson was under the impression she can control this [due to her dual role]: “I can keep Parks’ feet to the fire.”

ABOUT THAT BUDGET THAT DIDN’T EXIST

As we now know, in late April, six weeks prior to coming before the Community Board for “approval,” the Washington Square Park Conservancy filed a 4 year budget to New York State as part of their 501(c)(3) documents. When asked at the June 5th Parks Committee meeting (the meeting where “approval” of the Conservancy would take place after a ‘back and forth’ with community members peppering the conservancy founding members with questions) by community member Pete Davies if they had a 1 year budget, a five year budget, they replied, “no.”

In response to a question about this at the March 5th meeting , treasurer Gwen Evans responded that they had not even put together the organization’s first budget. Board member John Van Name stood up and said he works with non-profits and referred to a “form 1023” that includes “projections to the IRS.” Evans then said that budget [included in the filing documents] was “aspirational in nature.” They said “you have to have a goal” [in your filing].

Parks Committee member Shirley Secunda then said, “It’s a projection but it’s definitely a budget.”

Good point. Because aren’t all budgets projected into the future in a sense “aspirational?” Wouldn’t this be something you might mention in a public forum where the public is asking questions of your group vs. saying the organization has no budget at all as the Conservancy founding members did?

Parks Committee member Susanna Aaron asked about some money in a fund affiliated with the organization and the City Parks Foundation. Evans said that their “990” (a form non-profits file) ending June 30, 2013 had $41,000 in it; she stated that their budget fiscal year ends June 30th so they have the “same fiscal year as the city.” Evans explained that the $41,000 “came largely from Board members” and “went to fund the playground associate [at the park].”

As for the budget, the question was asked and the answer given was that wasn’t a real budget, it was “aspirational.” The conservancy founders could have said, “you know what? we should have mentioned it.” But they didn’t.

Added note: The reason this is important is that discussing these figures for their “aspirational” budget contained within the 501(c)(3) documents would have raised questions – and presumably they did not want that.

PROGRAMMING: WHAT ABOUT THOSE FILM FESTIVALS AND THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS FOR “PARK PATRONS” OUTLINED IN 501(c)(3) DOCUMENTS?

The 501(c) (3) documents also included programming plans of film festivals and theatrical productions, outlined in much detail, in which the Conservancy would utilize “Washington Square Park’s historic setting” for events geared to “park patrons.”

Parks Committee member Frederica Sigel said “How does park programming fit in with ‘clean, safe and beautiful’?” (‘Clean, safe and beautiful’ being the conservancy’s oft-stated goal for the park and a sort of mantra repeated numerous times at the June 2013 C.B. 2 meeting.)

Wash Sq Conservancy Founder and now Chairman Betsey Ely jumped up and stated: “We don’t do programming.”

______________________________________________________________________

Part III to follow. (I originally thought this would be two parts but there is a third coming!)

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Report-back: Questions and Concerns Persist Post Community Board 2 Meeting on Washington Square Park Private Conservancy – Part I, March 17, 2014

Photo: Amy Nicholson

2 thoughts on “Questions & Concerns Persist Post-Community Board 2 Meeting on Washington Sq Park Private Conservancy – Part II

  1. Excellent comprehensive reporting, Cathryn. Thank you from all the artists for looking out for the interests of all who enjoy New York’s green spaces. *big hug*

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