Sunday, November 2, 2008

Vote No on Parks

On Tuesday, Philadelphians decide a ballot questions concerning the merger of the Department of Parks with the Department of Recreation. The merger would end the Fairmount Park Commission, replacing it with a commissioner who is appointed by the mayor and who reports to the mayor. There would also be a new commssion that would be advisory only and would lack any authority.

The appointment of commissioners is problematic and secretive, to be sure but what are the ramifications of the proposed charter change? Change supporters have failed to provide any projections or to disclose any information about what is to come. The campaign has also included misleading information. The best assurance is that it can't hurt to try and that we should trust those making the proposal. Is this good enough for Philadelphia and our parks? Change is fine but it should accompany concrete information and quantifiable projections.

Ten of the sixteen Commission seats now are filled by nomination and interview behind closed doors by the Board of Judges of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District. They can select new commissioners based on any or no criteria. However, the ballot initiative replaces this process with appointment by the Mayor. Which might be fine under the current administration but it's not good when another Goode or Street is elected. For those who think appointment is better, how did you feel about the Bush Supreme Court nominees? Supporters say that changing the nomination process from the current system to appointments will increase accountability. When has a mayor ever lost an election because of an unpopular appointment? At any rate, under the current system, six seats are ex-officio seats filled by the mayor and five other officials appointed by the mayor. It seems that we already can hold the mayor accountable for Commission decisions.

Much of the conflict lies in park funding. Fairmount Park was founded by an endowment until 1975. It's been underfunded since 1975. Proponents of the change say that only the new system allows fund raising and that currently all funds must be dumped into the General Fund, where they disappear. In other words, “We can't raise money now but all money we raise must go into the general fund.”

Nothing prohibits the Fairmount Park Commission from leasing land or concessions. Nothing prohibits the Commission from raising funds or creating public-private partnerships. In fact, there already is a Fairmount Park Conservancy. Although the charter does require funds raised to be deposited in the general fund, they are to be earmarked for the Parks. They aren't supposed to be used for police, fire, streets, etc... Any use of park funds for other purposes violates the charter as it is currently written. If this is happening, as Mayor Nutter and others allege, it violates the charter.

Councilman Bill Green is the only city council member who voted against this ballot initiative. He wanted to require a two-thirds majority vote of council to approve land acquisition and disposal. When Clark and Blondell refused to include that provision, he refused to support it. Proponents of the merger say that the new department will create guidelines for land acquisition and disposal, guidelines that don't currently exist. Guidelines are merely suggestions and guidelines may not cover all of the nuances in a proposal. Guidelines are not mandatory and binding but are mere suggestions. Guidelines may not take into account all of the subtle nuances in individual land deals. The charter change allows land deals to take place following a simple majority vote of city council.

Mayor Nutter has promised to increase park funding by dedicating a portion of the parking revenue to the parks. Some people say that Nutter can only give parking revenues to the park with the charter change. Currently nothing prohibits the city from giving additional funds to the parks system. The city currently budgets money for the parks. There are no guarantees of better funding with this change. In fact, the proposed city budget cuts will be far worse than we've been told so far. Most likely park funding will not improve in the next few years.

I will say that I think appointment to the Fairmount Park Commission needs to change and needs to be more apparent. The Commissioners must have better qualifications. The Commission needs to do a better job raising funds and caring for the park. However, the Commission has existed since approximately 1860 and operated the park on an endowment until 1975. During that time, the park holdings increased and the Commission has kept the system together. To present an agency that has existed for 150 years on an endowment as a failure seems like a wrong assessment. Improve the Commission by all means but this change to the charter seems to do little to improve the Commission or funding.

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