“We maintain financial transparency and public accountability.”
Financial transparency is currently minimal. The Conservancy’s legally required Form 990’s and related documents remain substantively incomplete and inaccurate, despite promises to refile. Financial discussions are conducted in closed sessions. Requests for financial information are generally denied, citing exemption of private entities from the Public Record Law. The donors’ desire for confidentiality is the rationale for secrecy; but the donor list starts with “Anonymous” – the rest are presumably happy to be recognized for their contributions. After much delay, the Conservancy gave me a copy of the independent accountants’ report serving to certify equal matching private donations the Turnpike had required for its $5 million cash grant in 2005. Black marker hid all the pledge amounts and due dates as well as individual payment amounts; but the total payment of $1,306,500 was left visible, and, subtracting the known amount of $1 million in money from the City, it becomes evident that the Turnpike grant to the Conservancy was approved on a match of only $306,500 in actual private cash, with the rest in civic-minded generous corporate pledges — which wouldn’t even have to be collected if the bill passes. Interestingly, the report expressly disclaimed responsibility for certifying whether the Conservancy complied with the financial-related terms of the MTA agreement.
Financial transparency under the proposed bill will consist of disclosure of public-money expenditures (but not deliberations about expenditures mixing public and private funds), agency contracts (available anyway from the agencies) and discussions about development on or around the Greenway. Accountability will be through annual reports and quarterly public meetings about Conservancy goals, and self-assessments of performance, regarding events and activities, maintenance, and design modifications. There is no prohibition on closed meetings, as the Open Meeting Law imposes on public bodies. The proposed budget is to be agreed upon by the State, which must pay half up to $5.5 million; but the Conservancy’s budget wasn’t scrutinized before the bill was filed, and is unlikely to be critically questioned once the funding is set aside by the pending bill “without further appropriation,” that is, without further budgetary process. We apparently have $5.5 million dollars in state money annually that no one needs.
“The legislation confirms the community’s role in decision-making.”
The legislation would eliminate the existing community task force, and incorporate all community participation into its own structure (and years ago, the Conservancy declared that no Friends group should be formed, because IT was the Friends group, although no one can join this “conservancy” — there is no membership). Two neighborhood residents selected by the current board would be voting members on the 15-seat board, and a few community residents would be selected by the board for the 13-seat advisory “Leadership Council.”
“The Greenway is public open space where there will be no admission fee to enjoy the parklands. To suggest otherwise is a scare tactic.”
There will be be no admission fee to enjoy the “parklands,” but the bill requires an annual statement describing Conservancy “goals for the upcoming year, including the number and nature of events and program activities to be conducted during the year…[and] any fees or charges to the public associated with the planned activities…”
“No state park is comparable in the complexity of design, or in the level of care required.”
If it’s truly this complicated, the state should have commissioned competitive bids or independent professional cost estimates for the park’s maintenance, and also requested full disclosure of all past and anticipated Conservancy revenues, before considering any public funding, instead of agreeing to pay half of the Conservancy’s proposed budget up to $5.5 million a year. My estimate, based on information from various landscape professionals, indicates, as I wrote, a cost of $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year, for high-quality maintenance. New York’s Central Park is one of the most celebrated and heavily used parks in the world, and its 843 acres are managed by a renowned private conservancy for about $25 million — only $30,000 an acre annually.
“And enhancing the park will fall to private-sector funding raised by the conservancy.”
The word “enhancing” seems to be the key here; the Conservancy is introducing a re-definition of its privately-funded responsibility to apply only to “special” activities or elements, a concept which has not been mentioned before. Its current agreement with the state, Turnpike and City mandates it to assume (after 2012) all the Turnpike’s management obligations for the park, solely with private funding, as it promised. We need an explanation of this new position.
“Rather than the power-seeking entity Kressel envisions, the conservancy is found by many to be a civic-minded nonprofit that works collaboratively with the neighborhoods, other nonprofit groups, and public officials, and cares deeply about the beauty, accessibility, and common ground of the Greenway.”
“Is found by many…”? Perhaps; but many do not know the facts about its history, structure, intent, and past performance, and its pending legislation. The Conservancy is a non-profit entity representing for-profit business interests. It is still conducting political lobbying (what it calls “information sessions”) to get even greater corporate power over the park through the bill.
It does indeed care about keeping the park — the front yard of its business constituents — immaculately manicured. But the issue of public accessibility remains troubling, based on the lessons of Post Office Square park. Saying “common ground” doesn’t make it so.