(City Hall, December 21, 2009.) City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito and colleagues at a press conference announcing the Local Representation on Park Conservancies legislation. "The legislation will ensure greater transparency, accountability and community participation from the city's conservancies," said Viverito, the lead sponsor. The bill passed 50-0. (photo: © Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)
By Geoffrey Croft
The City Council unanimously passed legislation that will mandate local representation on park conservancy boards.
The bill requires conservancies to have at least one board member who either lives or has a business in the City Council District in which the park is located. Additionally, parks that abut more than one council district, like Central Park, will be required to have at least two community representatives on the conservancy board. The new board member(s) will be appointed by the local City Council member in consultation with the Parks Department and the conservancy.
The legislation grew out of a frustration over the lack of transparency and accountability in park conservancies, which are proliferating and have become more powerful. In particular, the Randall's Island Sport Foundation (RISF) has repeatedly come under fire after a string of controversial decisions pertaining to the island. This includes the lack of local representation on their board. Questions have also been raised about the city's lax oversight of these public/private partnerships.
The vote, originally scheduled for the City Council's November 30 stated meeting, was postponed twice to allow for further negotiation. One sticking point was a provision calling for four new board members at the Central Park Conservancy due to the park's location in multiple Council Districts. The sides compromised on two. The bill, Intro 1083-A, had 20 sponsors and was passed on the last legislative session for 2009, which also was the last day for 12 City Council members. If the bill had not been voted on, it would have had to be reintroduced.
"The legislation will ensure greater transparency, accountability and community participation from the city's conservancies," said Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, the bill's lead sponsor. "I think this is an important first step. Our parks are a public resource, and we have to make sure the decisions that are being made regarding their use are as open as possible and that the community's voice is always present at the decision-making table."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the public currently has no input in determining the make-up of park conservancy boards. "Until this piece of legislation, there was no requirement that the community where the park was located had a seat on the board and be actually a part of that park's conservancy governance," she said.
"For too long, others have dictated," added City Council Parks Chair Helen Foster. "I think the importance of this is making sure that the community people -- the folks who are actually affected most by the the conservancy and live closest to the park -- have a place at the table."
For months Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and other Parks employees have been been lobbying Council members in an effort to defeat or withdraw the bill, claiming it was unnecessary. At an October 30 hearing, 10 out of 13 people testified against it, including a Parks Department representative, the agency's former commissioner (and Benepe mentor) Henry Stern, and the big conservancies for Central Park, Madison Square Park, and Prospect Park. (RISF was a notable no-show.) Among the people who testified in favor of the bill were former City Council member Carol Greitzer and Brooklyn Bridge Park Defense Fund president Judi Francis.
"I know [the Parks Department] was not happy with the legislation, and they were actually asking me to withdraw it," Viverito said. "But I had the support of the Speaker, and I had the support of many others, and we moved forward because we believe in a more open process."
Did Adrian Throw Aimee Under the Bus?
Sources have told A Walk in the Park that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has been publicly blaming RISF head Aimee Boden for bringing unwanted attention to public/private partnerships which led to the creation of this legislation. The non-profit conservancies were created in large part to offset horrific cuts in city funding for parks and recreation programs.
Viverito said the genesis for the legislation was her East Harlem district's experience with RISF, which did not have a single board member who lived in the area.
But the larger questions to come out of the October 30 hearing, she said, concerned the lack consistency about what is expected of conservancies, how they are set up, and their oversight and power.
"They do have a lot of control over our parks, and we need to create a more consistent process with accountability," Viverito said after the vote. "I think we have to put more pressure on [the Parks Department] about being more accountable and what's expected of conservancies and the level of community input. Having community members on the board is one aspect of it, but I think there are other things we need to look at. When we had the hearing on this bill it really raised a lot of questions about how Parks oversees or maybe loosely oversees the conservancies."
Speaker Quinn said that the mayor is expected to sign the bill into law.
The Parks Department declined to comment.