Park User: “Make this Conservancy Fully Transparent”

At C.B. 2
Conservancy founders At C.B. 2

Updated – I’ve noted at this blog how the community around Washington Square fought back against a typical private conservancy model at the iconic park for years, choosing for the historic public space to remain managed by the city Parks Department, thereby retaining its uniqueness and avoiding a fate thrust upon the privatized parks -such as Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Union Square Park, Prospect Park – i.e., overly commercialized, overly programmed, sanitized, change in usage, reduced access for the public, etc. The Bloomberg Administration Parks Department, having worked so hard to push its (at last count) $40 Million redesign through, had other ideas and wanted to get around those pesky park users and neighbors. They found four wealthy neighborhood women ready to skirt some “murky” details, met with them behind closed doors, in secret, for over two years.

(In The New York Post article, an “insider” is quoted as saying: “Park officials met privately with the nonprofit’s founders because they feared a public backlash could halt talks.”)

Today features a viewpoint from reader Park User. But first, a bit more background:

When the four conservancy ladies finally appeared at the one “public hearing” dedicated to their private group’s “formation” (the truth was they were fully formed), they said they were “just a little friends (of the park) group,” sort of bumbling along; they just wanted to corral volunteers, plant flowers, stating their oft-repeated mantra of keeping WSP “safe, clean, and beautiful.” Few concrete details were provided. They said they only used the word “conservancy” in their name because every other name they looked at was “taken.” (Documents and emails later obtained by this blog showed how much information was concealed.)

Despite public concerns, Community Board 2, in a no-confidence split vote, “approved” this private entity with “conditions,” meant to allay those concerns (they did not). One of the stipulations was that the conservancy would not have a license agreement with the city; a license agreement would allow this private group to run and manage the park (as the aforementioned park conservancies do).

Another well-known problem with the conservancy model is a lack of transparency and accountability to the public.

Washington Square Park Conservancy could have used a different model, of course, which would have shown some creativity and sensitivity to the public – but is staidly set up like the others. The private organization Executive Director also holds the position of publicly-paid Park Administrator working for the New York City Parks Department. (The compelling reason for this given at the public hearing? So they “can share news about the park.”) This person wears “two hats,” as former Park Administrator Sarah Neilson, the first person to hold the “dual role” at Washington Square Park, used to say. (Neilson left in November. The new Park Administrator/Exec. Dir. is George Vellonakis, see links at end of piece.)

Park User outlines the problems with the wearing of “two hats”, stating: “Taking off the city officials’ hat to run the Conservancy may also create the opportunity to take off the city officials’ visibility and accountability to the government and the public to meet the ethics standards imposed on city employees.”

Park User: “Make this Conservancy Fully Transparent”

This comment was originally in reply to New Washington Sq Administrator Vellonakis: Park “Nemesis” or “Cool”?:

Conduct the business itself completely in public as it is occurring, not just revealing this or that sometime after the fact.

Notwithstanding any “is this person good or bad for the park” reflection, perhaps the most important question for the new Administrator to answer is “will you make the complete minutes (excepting personnel matters) of WSPC meetings public, and will you open WSPC meetings to the public?

After that, “will you open the WSPC Board to candidates not nominated by the Board itself?”

Parks employees, like all city employees, are bound by certain ethics rules. For example in the Official Compilation of the Rules of the City of New York, http://www.nyc.gov/html/mocs/ppb/downloads/pdf/PPB_Final_Updated_5_12_14%20(3).pdf , section 1.03(a), “Ethics,” speaks to a variety of standards which city employees are expected to meet with regard to fair contracting, obtaining best value for the city, using confidential information obtained solely for the benefit of the city, and the like.

A case might be made that a private Conservancy board and its commercially-interested contacts, conducting its business in private and reporting “as it sees fit” to the public, is an inappropriate venue for participation of a key City Official in a non-city capacity. Taking off the city officials’ hat to run the Conservancy may also create the opportunity to take off the city officials’ visibility and accountability to the government and the public to meet the ethics standards imposed on city employees.

[Ed note: I think that paragraph is worth reviewing twice.]

A case might be made that a private Conservancy board and its commercially-interested contacts, conducting its business in private and reporting “as it sees fit” to the public, is an inappropriate venue for participation of a key City Official in a non-city capacity. Taking off the city officials’ hat to run the Conservancy may also create the opportunity to take off the city officials’ visibility and accountability to the government and the public to meet the ethics standards imposed on city employees.

A completely appropriate “sunshine” measure to counteract this situation both for the interests of the public in general and the standards of the city is to discard the artificial “private” venue concept of a Conservancy standing apart from full inspectability in realtime by the public. Replace this with the full minutes of all WSPC board minutes being published, and opening of all WSPC Board meetings to the public.

The new Administrator needs to explain, if he opposes this concept, just why it is that making WSPC operations fully public would be a bad thing.

Let park designers, park renters, restaurant developers, NYU, the whole lot of them use the Conservancy as their sounding board for pitching ideas and negotiating plans with the City and CB2 if they wish. But conduct the business itself completely in public as it is occurring, not just revealing this or that sometime after the fact. Make this Conservancy fully transparent.

* * *

Readers, please share your thoughts.

Is there a chance this private organization might make itself transparent?

Is there a possibility that the Parks Department/NYC will realize the problems with this dual role model in general?

Is there hope for Washington Square Park to not be overrun by programming, NYU, and corporate interests? to not become sanitized and boring?

Should the roles be entirely separate to begin with?

Will the public have a say in these matters?

Personally, I believe the roles have to separated, because they are bouncing back and forth out of public view into the territory of the Parks Department which will be…
Next up: my report back from the recent Community Board meeting addressing Washington Square Park Conservancy.

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Documentation: What was Concealed in Public Statements by Washington Square Park Private Conservancy Founders.

Park Re-designer George Vellonakis Appointed New Washington Square Administrator

CB2 to Discuss Washington Sq Park and Conservancy After Long Delay Wed. June 7

Report-back: Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meets On WSP Private Conservancy – Part I June 2013

Photo: Cathryn, features conservancy founding members, from left to right, Justine Leguizamo, Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans, Elizabeth “Betsey” Ely at C.B. 2 Parks Committee meeting addressing formation

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