I've been following up on my Monday Blog about the Boston City Council wanting to create a Conservancy to manage or oversee the Boston Common. Apparently the blog made quite the impact and numerous calls were made to City Hall and the Globe wrote an article about it. Funny how the news cycle works in Boston. The meeting happens last week and the press doesn't write about it, I find out about what they are planning, blog about it, and then the Globe writes a weak article that doesn't ask the tough questions.
Background: The City Council special committee on the Common made up of Ross, Lamattina, and Linehan has been meeting for a year to discuss ways to make the Boston Common better. They have held some public forums to get input
(such as at Suffolk University) from the Public, and they have roadtripped to New York to look at some Parks there. All of this is good.
They then put together a draft report on suggestions for the Common and presented it at a meeting last week. They gave out the draft to people in the room (since it was a public meeting) and discussed revisions to the draft in a public forum. Again, all of this is good.
Now the bad stuff happens. In that draft report they discuss creating a conservancy, which is a private entity, to raise funds and help manage the Park. It is my understanding (but I could be wrong) that the idea of a Conservancy was never discussed at the public forums. The next thing was they asked people at that meeting not to show the draft report to anyone!! (not very transparent!)
I called my South End councilor Linehan to get some answers and to get a copy of the draft report. They said they didn't have it and referred me to Mike Ross's office.
I spoke to Mike Ross's office and they refused to provide me with a copy of the draft report, saying that it was only a draft and that it is going to be changed, and alluded to the fact that I could make a Public Records request for it if I wanted it. They asked me why I wanted it, and I said to see what you are planning to give comment perhaps.
I then asked what the process would be. They responded that they would come up with a new draft that Mike Ross would approve. They MIGHT have another working session, or they might not, and then the report would be presented to the full Boston City Council in a couple weeks to be voted on. I asked "where will the public be able to see what you are proposing for the Boston Common before you vote on it?" The answer, of course, is that we might not be able to. Again, not very transparent.
To me the process should be: hold hearings and gain input as they did, then put together a draft proposal, have another hearing, post the proposal on the City website to get input from ALL the citizens, then put together a final draft, and notice the public about when the public discussion and vote will take place at the City Council. Pretty simple it seems to me, why not get the public input on the BOSTON COMMON???
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Finally, I got down to the nitty gritty, which is the money part, what the really important decisions are about. In the Globe article Councilor Linehan was quoted as saying "The park needs some help right now; financially it needs more money". Councilor Ross was quoted as saying they " want to make the Common a better place that looks to private dollars instead of nonexistent public dollars."
So I asked Councilor Ross's office some questions about money:
Q: How much do we spend on the Boston Common now?
A: We don't have that information
Q: How much do we need to spend to maintain it properly?
A: We don't have that information
Q: How much will the proposed improvements cost?
A: We don't have that information
They then told me about the tough times we are in, and how the Parks Department budget has been cut. I said, "really, are you sure about that?" They checked the numbers and sure enough the Parks Department budget had not been cut but had been increased this year. I appreciate them taking the time to check their facts, but they shouldn't just blurt out that a budget has been cut when it hasn't.
I also brought up the fact that just this summer Councilor Ross and Councilor Murphy held a hearing where Councilor Murphy explained that the city had 10 to 25 million dollars left over from last years budget. Councilor Ross thanked him for the information and they decided to use that money to give all the Councilor's staff raises. This video is available on the City of Boston website. Maybe some of that money could have gone to make Boston Common nicer? And what are we doing with all that left over money? I asked Councilor Flaherty that at his Kitchen Table talk here in the South End but he didn't have an answer for that either.
I think if I was doing a year long research project into fixing up the Boston Common, I would find out how much we spend on that Park, and how much the professionals, the Boston Parks Department, think they would need to maintain it in better conditions. Especially before I make public statements to the press about needing more money and "nonexistent" public funds. But that's just me, I'm in business for myself and I look at the bottom line.
Why Conservancy's are a BAD idea
Number one is that this is Public space, owned by the people, of the people and for the people. It is ridiculous to think that we have maintained this park by the citizens for 400 or so years, and now we need to get private oversight involved.
We already have a friends of the Public Gardens and the Boston Common, they are free to raise money and do good things for the parks. There is no reason that they can't continue to do this and raise more private money to help, if possible.
What a Conservancy allows is private control over a public body. For example what happened at the Greenway. They set up that Conservancy supposedly to handle the expense of maintaining the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Conservancy said they would handle the expenses, but then they said they couldn't raise enough money, but they had already been given control. So the Conservancy goes back to the City and the Legislature who gives them money to run and maintain the park. Since they are a private agency they are not governed by public laws about transparency, accountability, etc. It is a great place for cronyism, nepotism and giving velvet handshake jobs to political friends without any public oversight.
It also allows that private entity to set the rules for the park. Such as no protests, no marches, no silent raves on the Common (as my clients 17 year old daughter pointed out), no Freedom of Speech, no pot rallies, and certainly no homeless people using it as a shelter of last resort.
If they do set up a Conservancy, there needs to be a line in the agreement that says
"This Boston Common Conservancy may NEVER receive one penny of public funds from the City, State or Federal Governments" If it doesn't include that line, then we are giving away public funds to a private entity with no oversight of how that money is spent.
Frankly, hasn't our government admitted failure when they say they are not capable of taking care of the most important Park in the City of Boston?
We blow money on new City Hall studies, bonuses for City Council Staff, signs with the Mayors name on them all over the City, low brow reports on the Open Meeting Law, give away property for free to the BRA, but we can't maintain the Boston Common?
I suggest Mike Ross work harder on getting the BRA to give the City back the money they get for letting the Red Sox close off the streets during game days. The BRA promised Mike and the Council that the City would get that money but we don't. Mike was hopping mad (as he should have been) when they reneged on that deal. Where is that money now?