Saturday, December 06, 2008

More Research on the Boston Common, and lack of transparency from Councilor Ross's office

Mike Ross is having a working session on the status of Boston Common Monday afternoon at Boston City Hall.

In a process that would make George Orwell proud, Councilor Ross advises you to bring 15 copies of what information or testimony you want to bring to the meeting. But how can you know where you stand on the issue when he won't release his report of what they are proposing??? They had a draft report from their last meeting that included establishing a Conservancy for the Boston Common, but they wouldn't release that report to the public despite it being presented at a public meeting(!?). They have told constituents that they are going to post the new proposals online but as of 2 pm. EST on Saturday they haven't posted that information for a Monday meeting.

A couple of weeks ago after blogged about the idea of a Conservancy the Boston Globe did an article where the Councilors stated that we didn't have enough money for the Common. See it at:

I called Councilor Ross's office up to ask how much is spent on the Common now, how much is needed, and how much their proposals would cost. His office didn't have any of that information.

So I called the Parks Department, and as is so often the case, I spoke to an average hard working down to earth City employee who gave me a wealth of information and some basic common sense.

I asked if there is a breakout on how much we spend on the Boston Common every year. She said no, we don't break it out by park, we buy grass seed and other items for all the parks together. Her colloquialism was "when you buy a big bottle of Windex you don't count how many squirts to clean the bathroom versus how many squirts to clean the kitchen, you get enough to clean the whole house."

I asked her some more financial questions, she said she would check and call me back. Sure enough she called back a few minutes later and said that the Parks department has a 16 million dollar maintenance budget and a 14 million dollar capital improvement budget. The capital budget is planned out 5 to 10 years in advance for big projects like park renovations, and playground upgrades. I asked if the Parks department had done any reports or studies on the Boston Common in the last couple years that identified needs and she said not to her knowledge.

I then mentioned the Globe article which quoted the Councilors as saying we didn't have any money. She beat me to the punch by saying "how can they say they don't have any money if they don't know how much we spend?" I replied "my point exactly".

She then made me crack up and nearly drive off the road with laughter: "it sounds like a teenager asking for money, 'how much is it going to cost', 'I don't know until I spend it', or maybe it sounds like a used car salesman."

I couldn't have said it better myself. When a Parks Department employee equates the Boston City Council actions about a public park to a teenager asking for money you know that something is up.

There are two separate issues here: one is what improvements are going to be made to the park, the second is who is going to control the park. Councilor Ross is trying to combine the two as if they are intertwined when they have nothing to do with each other.

On issue one, improving the park, I applaud the Councilors on their effort to study the Boston Common, get public input on what should be done to the Park and come up with a consensus for making the Park better. My opinions on what physically happens to the park are quite neutral, I support much of what the Friends of the Public Garden recommends:

However, on issue two which is about who controls the Park I have very strong opinions. Conservancy's are a bad idea as I have written about before. They put private control over public spaces. This allows the private entity, which in this case appears to many of the rich businesses and institutions such as Emerson College and Suffolk University, that abut the Common to establish their own rules. In other cases such as the Rose Kennedy Greenway and Post Office Square the Conservancy's have banned freedom of speech, the right to assemble, loitering, etc. I spoke to a photographer from Boston Press Photographers Association who tried to take a photo of a local business leader at Post Office Square and they were escorted off the premise, told to apply for a permit and then had to cool their heels for some time waiting for a response that never came. They took the picture elsewhere. Imagine if you had to ask for permission to take a picture of your kid skating at the Frog Pond?

What is troubling is the lack of transparency about what the Conservancy would do, who would be on it, what control they would have and whether they would accept public funds. If these Institutions and Private Donors want to donate now, they are perfectly able to through the Friends of the Public Garden. Why does Councilor Ross's office refuse to answer any questions about what the structure of this Conservancy as he proposes it, will be???

So why don't they? My experience tells me because they want some quid pro quo. If they give money they want it tied to specific improvements that they want, not necessarily what the People want. Potentially even more diabolical, is that they want to control behavior on the Boston Common, the first and maybe most important Park in the country. They want the right to treat the Common as private property so that they can keep the undesirables away, to control who gets to use the common for Shakespeare on the Park, or for baseball games, and certainly not for hemp rallies.

Until the question is answered about what the Conservancy will do, what rights over the Park they will have, and whether they will take Public money (with no public oversight) this idea should be a non-starter.

Please call Councilor Ross, Councilor Linehan, and Councilor Lamattina with your questions about what this Consevancy will do at 617-635-4000 and hopefully you will tell them that you too do not want private control over this most important Public Space.

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