Washington Square Park Seeks New Park Administrator | Time to Separate Public Park Positions from Private Conservancies

July 2012 job posting (click for full)

washington square park parks department sign

NYC Parks Department representative Steve Simon was a no-show at the November 2nd Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting, so committee chair Rich Caccappolo broke the news that Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson was leaving that position to assume “a new role within the Parks Department [and would be] joining the Parks planning division.” Neilson has already left; her last day was Friday, November 4th. The job listing has not yet been posted at the Parks Department web site.

Sarah Neilson assumed the park administrator position in March 2013, replacing Rebecca Ferguson who left in summer 2012. That position curiously remained vacant for nine months until Neilson was chosen for the job; it was later learned that there was a “murky” reason for this, having to do with secrecy within the Parks Department and private influence on the hiring. (More on this to come next post.)

What will happen this time? Will private influence be working behind-the-scenes to get a favorite choice in, as was the case then?

The New York City Parks Department has Run and Managed Washington Square Park Since its Inception

The New York City Parks Department has run Washington Square Park since the agency was formed. In 1996, a dedicated park administrator was first appointed. The Greenwich Village park has refreshingly been without the influence of a “public-private partnership” scenario unlike its more commercialized neighbors to the north. Bloomberg Administration agency staff were well aware that the surrounding community had shot down the idea of a conservancy at the park for over 12 years, to deter NYU and other private interests from taking hold.

Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro and his Chief of Staff Simon were the main engineers of a plan to get a private conservancy approved by making it look a bit more benign. They coached Neilson and the four affluent conservancy founders on what to say when coming before Community Board 2 Parks Committee in June of 2013 – and, more importantly, what not to say. The founding members were notably evasive in their public statements – which they chalked up to just getting started (not the reason). According to those statements, Washington Square Park Conservancy aimed to just operate as “a little friends [of the park] group,” only using the word “conservancy” in the name because every other name they considered was “taken.”

At a public hearing in 2013, Neilson assured the community that she would always only be paid by the New York City Parks Department and not paid by any other private organization  – but what will happen now?

[FOIL Documents obtained by this blog showed that, despite the four conservancy founders statements at the one C.B.2 public hearing addressing their “formation,” their intentions went well beyond what they revealed to the public. There were secret meetings with NYU, plans to expanding programming at WSP to cater to “park patrons,” obtain a license agreement ultimately to run the park, be involved in the aesthetic look of the park, and more. It is only public pressure that has held them back to date and the information released by this blog.]

July 2012 job posting (click for full)
July 2012 job posting (click for full)

Why Did Sarah Neilson Leave the Washington Square Park Admin Position?

When Neilson started the job in March of 2013, she immediately began signing off on her emails with both Executive Director, Washington Square Park Conservancy and Washington Square Park Administrator (a public Parks Department position). This was prior to the private organization’s existence being announced to the public (it did not come before C.B. 2 for “approval” of its “formation” until three months later – the board was unusually split in its final vote). Someone who applied for a park permit tipped off this blog, leading to this NY Post article. Neilson perhaps never completely rebounded from the early secrecy.

Her leaving the job brings up some questions – Was it her decision to leave? What role did the Washington Square Park Conservancy play here? And is the private organization seeking to sketchily expand its turf at the park now?

“Dual Role” Position Not Outlined in Initial Parks Department Job Posting July 2012; Time to Separate the Two Jobs

Sarah Neilson held the job “wearing two hats,” as she liked to say, yet when the job was initially posted in 2012 there was nothing noted about a “dual role,” also working for a conservancy.

Such is the way the Parks Department tried to pull the wool over the community’s eyes by creating this organization literally in private with the three founding members – Elizabeth Ely, Gwen Evans and Veronica Bulgari – who had no problem going along with the clandestine plan. (Justine Leguizamo was added into the mix later.)

Parks officials knew if they put the conservancy information in the job notice, word would get out – and that was the last thing they wanted. The only slight tip of hand in the job description is the specification: “experience in fundraising.”

When a private organization starts out with such a secretive, evasive history, can you ever really trust those involved?

It is time to separate these two jobs now – there was never a good reason for them to be connected to begin with. Let Washington Square Park Conservancy assume a role like the Washington Square Association, off to the side, helpful but not with the possibility of assuming control of this very unique park. The Parks Department can now make a clear delineation of what the roles are here and avoid a future private foothold – which is looming – in the future.

Sarah Neilson 2014 park ribbon cutting
Sarah Neilson 2014 park ribbon cutting

As for the job not being posted yet – what might the hold up be? Could it have something to do with Washington Square Park Conservancy inserting itself into the hiring mix again, like last time? (Again, more on this in next post.)

Caccappolo said at the meeting earlier this month that the job would be posted “soon.” He said that the Parks Department is “hoping to fill the position by winter” and the conservancy “will continue as a partner group.”

If Neilson left on November 4th, assuming she gave at least two weeks notice, wouldn’t the job posting be up in advance so the park is not left without an administrator? Again.

Some background on Washington Square Park Conservancy “formation”:

WSP Blog wrote at the time of the public hearing in June 2013:

This all brings up so many questions such as … why should the Washington Square Park administrator, a Parks Department employee, also be the Conservancy “executive director?” 

Sarah Neilson, the person holding that position, has been a Parks Department employee for the last 2 1/2- 3 years as a “staff analyst” in the Capital Projects division. At the meeting, she stated that “it makes sense for the two roles to be held by the same person. … [that way we can] share news and events about the park.”

Bill Castro said something similar: “It allows us to have both of them working in harmony.”

Call me confused. If the Washington Square Park Conservancy is mainly working to raise funds and not “running” the park, what’s the big deal about sharing news? Can’t they just send each other memos?

This seems like an incredible slippery slope making it easier for the park to go from having a Conservancy that “just” raises money to eventually running the park. If it’s not right now, down the line.

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Report back from Community Board 2 Parks Committee Meeting on WSP Private Conservancy

Washington Square Park Administrator Job Posting July 2012

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

Impact of Private Conservancies on City Parks

Private Conservancy Watch at WSP

WSP Conservancy Timeline

Photos: Cathryn