The Politics of “Planting Flowers” at Washington Square Park: New York State 501c3 Documents Show Plans, Budget in Sharp Contrast to Public Statements of Private Conservancy Founders

by cathryn on December 18, 2013

Updated January 6, 2013  – This is Part V in a series –

Bryant Park, Plans for February 2014 – what Manhattan’s Community Board 5 has to Deal With * Could this be WSP once private influence has its way?

The private Conservancy at Washington Square Park was only able to gain approval from local Community Board 2 (headed by a real estate broker, who’d met with the Conservancy founding members privately), by:

  • Collusion between New York City Parks Department officials and four wealthy individuals
  • Privatized planning to form this Conservancy
  • Circumvention of Public scrutiny
  • Concealing required details in statements at public meetings
  • Lying
  • Misuse of Public Funds

It’s clear, as I’ve been outlining here in a series at this blog, that the affluent conservancy founders with unscrupulous Parks Department officials buried the concepts of “transparency” and “accountability” long before they ever appeared before the public in June of this year.

For over twelve years the City had attempted to place a private conservancy at Washington Square Park and the surrounding community had resisted. The Parks Department thought, that, at last, they had a Community Board with members that wouldn’t ask too many questions and would take them at their word – and, on that front, the Board delivered. Members of C.B.2 were very much manipulated and ‘bought into’ the scenario that this “conservancy” was ‘just’ four neighborhood women who had time and money on their hands, couldn’t find another name for their organization, and just wanted to plant some flowers and gather up some volunteers at Washington Square Park.

The Bloomberg Administration’s Parks Department tried a new tactic this time around, led by Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, they went into stealth mode, doing whatever it took to get Board “approval” before the new Mayor came in, and, on the surface, it worked.

What is Known To Have Been Concealed Thus Far

Documents obtained by Washington Square Park Blog paint quite a different picture from what was discussed publicly, as outlined at a series here thus far, including:

Part I: Secret meetings transpired with New York University and a “Gift to the Park” of $500,00 from the University never revealed to the public.

Part II: Prior to coming before Community Board 2, the Washington Sq Conservancy founding members were worried: there were “too many murky areas” that might not “satisfy public inquiry.” Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro was more than willing to help hide those “murky areas.” He would provide guidance to the four women on what to say, and, perhaps more importantly, what not to say (and a few Community Board 2 members coached them as well). Another “murky area” was the fact that the Conservancy was “looking forward to signing a license agreement with the city” as expressed by Treasurer Gwen Evans (also via email) — license agreement meaning maintenance and operational oversight; something Community Board 2′s “conditional” approval stipulated against.

Part III: Hot Dog! WSP Conservancy’s decision to “move the hot dog guy away from the Arch view corridor” and bring in “new and different vendors” (decision-making being way outside of organization’s purview) while restauranteur Mario Batali, now on the Conservancy Board, can remain.

Part IV: Some of the key documents Washington Square Park Blog obtained can be viewed here.

Part V:

Washington Square Park Conservancy 501c3 Non-Profit Application Vs. Public Statements

The Washington Square Park Conservancy 501c3 non-profit information was filed with New York State on April 26, 2013. The conservancy founders first came before Community Board 2/the public on June 5, 2013. The four founders – Elizabeth Ely, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari, and Justine Leguizamo –  concealed information well known to them in their statements to the public at that time and afterwards. Just two weeks later, the full Community Board voted to “approve” the conservancy — conditional approval with “stipulations” — on June 20th.

EXTENT OF SCOPE

What they said:

Betsey Ely, one of the Washington Sq Park Conservancy founding members, ” I spoke on June 5th. Many [were] in favor of our ‘friends’ group. We are working with the City of New York and other neighborhood groups [to make sure wsp] continues as a diverse and historical green space. … To keep [park] safe, clean and beautiful is all we want to do. … bring volunteers in – We want to be an advocate. Hire a playground associate, modest supplements…  We have no interest in running the park.

Another WSP Conservancy board member, Veronica Bulgari, said, “The committee voted 11-1 in favor of our group. We first spoke with the Parks Department 1 ½ years ago. We spoke with many administrators [at other parks]. Last August, we met with Village Alliance and Washington Square Association. We met with [NY State Senator and Former C.B. 2 Chair] Brad Hoylman and [NY State Assembly Member] Deborah Glick. We were forthcoming and direct about our ideas. [We plan to have a] strong volunteer program. We will be raising funds to supplement the park.”

Next up, another Washington Sq Park Conservancy founding member Gwen Evans, “We presented at the June 5th meeting. We had  many supporters there. The committee voted 11-1 in favor. [We will be an] Independent non-profit. We filed paperwork [to be] 501c3. …  [Word] Conservancy wasn’t 1st choice – every other name was taken. Conservancy is just a word – If we called ourselves ‘friends,’ we wouldn’t be any different.” She said that the board will have a member of the Community Board as well as The Washington Square Association. “We will make sure community will be represented.”

The Washington Square Park Conservancy 501c3 non-profit application contained loads of information within it never revealed to the Community Board 2 and the public:

Under “Narrative Description of Activities” – “Strategic Planning and Programming,”:

“WSPC plans to work with the Parks Department to develop and implement a strategic plan for the Park and will create and sustain effective collaboration with the Parks Department; other city, state, and federal departments and agencies; elected officials and other community organizations; local businesses and interest groups; and park users generally.”

Also:

“WSPC performs an important charitable function and lessens the burdens of government (specifically the City government and the New York City Parks Department (the ‘Parks Department’)) by supplementing and supporting the efforts of the Parks Department through WSPC’s involvement in certain day-to-day functions of the Park, its programming of activities for the benefit of Park patrons and the public generally, and the dedication of resources for the preservation and enhancement of these historic public grounds.”

“Strategic planning?” “day-to-day functions?” That doesn’t sound so much like a “little friends group” (as they described themselves) now, does it?

(A note: A City Parks Department attorney advised changes to this document, all of which seem to have been implemented except for wording above – the attorney asked the Conservancy Board members to remove the words: “and lessens the burdens of government” and to insert: “supplement and support the efforts of government” – the Conservancy founders chose not to accommodate that revision. Compared to everything else however, that is a small thing, just notable.)

BUDGET

When asked by community member Pete Davies at the June 5th Parks Committee meeting, “Do you have a projected budget, a 1st year budget … a 5 year budget?,” they responded “no.”

Financial information submitted to New York State in December 2012 shows a four year projected budget already in place with funds for this time period totaling $771,250.00.

In addition, in January 2013, Ely wrote to a potential contributor:

“Through the Majors [sic. Mayors] Fund [to Advance New York City – an org. which “facilitates public-private partnerships”] we have access for over one million dollars to assure the Park’s preservation. However this is just the start.”

The Start of What?

Another key piece of information that did not make its way to the Community Board. The lack of review of documents and undisclosed information before the Board voted is particularly important as the Board was being asked to vote on crucial matters affecting the governance of Washington Square Park.

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SALARY/STIPEND

At the June 5th Parks Committee meeting Washington Sq Park Conservancy founders said that city Parks employee and Washington Square Park Administrator (she assumed the role in March) Sarah Neilson who they brought on to be their Executive Director would not receive a salary from their organization. This seems to be in response (as does every move they make) to concerns about Conservancy salaries being typically quite lucrative. Yet, their 501c3 documents point to a $25,000, perhaps more, stipend for Neilson in the future. Yes, it’s a “stipend,” not exactly a “salary” – however this is another piece of information well known to them at the time that they omitted from information provided to the public. Why not just be honest about one thing?

PLANS FOR THE PARK

The board members said at the June 5th Parks Committee meeting that they were there to raise funds, to provide for some items, such as night-time garbage removal, a playground associate in one of the playgrounds and perhaps hiring other park staff such as gardeners and maintenance personnel. And maybe, Elizabeth Ely said, we’ll start a book club. (A Book Club!!) It all sounds so innocuous.

The documents since obtained by Washington Square Park Blog reveal the Conservancy Board members left more than a few things out of the public discussion. The $1.5 million funding ($1 million from the Mayor’s Fund, $500,000 from NYU) was just one of many.

Quoting from the Washington Square Park Conservancy 501c3 Documents:

“WSPC [Washington Square Park Conservancy] is working to establish a program to bring theater and performing arts events to the Park. WSPC hopes to use the Park’s historic setting as a venue for film festivals, theatrical productions, art exhibits, and other programs for the cultural benefit of Park patrons.”

Note use of word ‘patrons.”

Never mentioned at any Community Board meeting or in any interviews.

In addition:

“As a specific example, WSPC has already begun exploring options for installing benches, tables, and outdoor furniture in the Park and increasing the presence of security personnel to enhance public enjoyment of the Park.”

Never mentioned at any Community Board meeting or in any interviews.

*   *   *

All of this information was well known to the city’s Parks Department (Bill Castro was the one who stated misinformation publicly again and again) and the Conservancy founders. The application for 501c3 status (this allows donors to give tax-exempt donations) obviously was carefully considered and quite detailed. 501c3 documents were sent to New York State in late April; the four women first came before the public one month later in early June knowing full well what they were stating was not the truth.

The well-meaning members of Community Board 2 didn’t always ask the right questions or push hard enough but they also were prevented from asking the hard questions based on trickery, manipulation and collusion between the privatizers and several Parks Department officials. Of course, they should have waited for full documentation about this Conservancy, but they trusted the Conservancy ladies and the honchos – always a bad decision in politics of this sort with high economic and political stakes.

Now is the time to:

  • Reverse acceptance of the Conservancy.
  • Start the process anew and let the community decide how to raise funds for Washington Square Park – if necessary, not via a private conservancy of this type model which brings up a whole host of issues.
  • De-link the public Park Administrator from the private Conservancy.
  • The Parks Department must reveal everything it knows and put all the privatizing cards on the table.
  • The time is NOW to HAVE that open and transparent dialogue and process denied previously – one that actually INCLUDES the community and park users in this critical discussion around the governance of landmark Washington Square Park.

This blog is currently seeking further documentation of correspondence by Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, former New York City Parks Commissioners Adrian Benepe and current Commissioner Veronica White. All had met with the Conservancy founders prior to their public testimony on behalf of the Conservancy, and before any information was shared with the public.

______________________

The 501(c)(3) documents the Wash Square Park Conservancy filed can be viewed here. (Added Jan. 6, 2013)

 

Note:– In addition, the bylaws that the Washington Sq Park Conservancy founders provided to The Villager and also apparently now appear on the organization’s web site do not include the stipulated language that the Community Board specifically asked for which would measure “compliance” with the Board’s resolution. However, as you can see, the conservancy is already not in compliance – based on so many inaccurate statements, intentional omissions and misrepresentations.

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

* Washington Square Park Conservancy Timeline

 
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

gVReader December 19, 2013 at 4:33 pm

It is time that the Parks department be required to manage *all* contact with Conservancies, even from startup, as if they were working with a vendor applying for a license, AND to standards applied to major contractors. No more using the loophole of “nurturing a community group” as a back door to offload Parks and other government responsibilities to private firms and private governance outside of the controls which exist in order to enforce ethical and fair competitive practices where money and influence are in play.

In particular, Parks should:

1. remove its staff from all officer or other roles within Conservancies.

2. conform Conservancies, from first contact forward, to ethics and procedural standards applied to contracts, such as limited and audited contact between the private body and selected parks officials.

3. conform Conservancies to penalties applied to vendors AND to major contractors, for example, a contract applicant which is found to have misrepresented its status on certain stipulated requirements such as labor or health practices is subject to a ban on applying for any contract for a period of 5 years.

It seems likely that if a vendor for resurfacing the roads were to have so many deceptions revealed during its application, it would be caught and prevented from getting the contract. This ability to protect the public from unscrupulous/unqualified/corrupted vendors and from government/private sector collusion is why the standards and practices exist. The fact that the “nurture Conservancy” process derails all such points of reference shows that the Conservancy formation process is broken.

This pass at creating a Conservancy should be set aside, and further, appropriate agencies within government responsible for auditing and enforcing contract standards and practices should perhaps review the whole mess and bring it back under control.

Reply

cathryn December 29, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Hi gvReader,

Sorry for delayed response. Very good points!! Very well laid out.

Thanks for commenting and giving this such thought. We need to reach the ‘higher ups’ and levels of mechanisms that are providing some ‘checks and balances’ (does such a thing exist within the Bloomberg Admin? … I’m not sure) with regards to this — this level of scrutiny was entirely lacking from the Community Board process and the Parks Department is purposefully avoiding a closer look and in fact condoning these practices. The Park Administrator definitely needs to be separated from the Executive Director position of the Conservancy and the Conservancy needs to be ‘demoted’ to the level of other existing groups. Appropriate agencies within government do need to “review the whole mess” – which agencies that would be I am not certain. The City Council under Bloomberg has been willing to look away. But this corrupted “process” is certainly in violation of a number of things for sure.

Thanks for this insightful comment and overview.

Cathryn

Reply

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