Mr. Mayor, what the hell are you doing?
Back in September, you announced that, at the end of Erie County's five-year take-over of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks on December 31, 2009, that the City wanted the responsibility back. In 2004, the County had placed the day-to-day management of the Olmsted Parks, Parkways and Circles into the hands of the non-profit group, The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
Since that time, The Conservancy has not only maintained the parks, parkways and circles, but have vastly enhanced them, reconstructed lost aspects, and has a master plan to restore gardens and structures to more closely match Frederic Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux's original plan.
They were the first non-profit in the nation to manage a park system. Other cities look to the Conservancy as a model of how public/private park management can work. When people from outside our region look in and see what is right in our community -- The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is chief among them.
They have done a nation-wide search and found a leader in Thomas Herrera-Mishler. He's a professional Landscape Architect/Planner/Urban Designer with experience running the Toledo Botanical Garden, and has led a state-wide, non-profit horticultural society. He has experience in management, operations, budget & finance, fundraising, programming, education, strategic planning, board development, public relations, and partnership building. I have yet to meet him, but I'm told he also has a vision of restoring aspects and structures of Calvert Vaux's design. With goals of rejuvenating the Rose garden reached and Japanese gardens almost in reach, he's a leader with vision -- and the will & skills to make them happen. Folks with his experience don't come around too often. He should be on your team.
The Conservancy has put in place professionals that solicit annual memberships, grants, corporate partners, donations and organize creative fundraisers -- matching the $8 million spent by the County & City since 2004. Their board alone has given over $1 million. Do you have the staff in place to keep this going?
They have hired other specialists to take care of the parks -- landscape architects, a tree-care specialist, program coordinators, a rental & volunteer coordinators, and managers for golf operations and fundraising -- and in the process have revolutionized how park systems can be managed through Zone Gardening, utilizing a community-based advisory council, developing a 20-year master plan and more. Do you have the innovative & enthusiastic staff to keep these and other new initiatives going?
Constructed in the 1870s, these six parks, eight parkways, nine traffic circles and seven smaller spaces, were the first of their kind in the nation and represent one of Olmsted's largest bodies of work. They are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Olmsted's inspiration for their design included England's Stourhead and Paris' boulevards, parks, squares and gardens. The parks have been in gradual decline since their construction under the City's care -- a highway slicing through one park, eliminating a boulevard & parkway for a below-grade highway, circles eliminated, portions of parks taken away, ponds & streams left to dumping, structures razed, fountains that didn't work, overgrown & dangerous pathways, services closed (boating, skating, etc.), graffitti-ridden buildings. One ticked-off Parks Commissioner ordered barrels of salt dumped into a park lake years ago. Still tremendous assets for Buffalo, but far from their former beauty & intended purpose. Only the Olmsted Parks Conservancy has started to reverse the decline in the past 133 years. Some aspects of the original design will be gone forever.
I understand completely the City's need to review The Conservancy's contract. It's smart (and the law) to do so. The Conservancy, as any other group, should have to meet the City's standards as set by the city charter, codes and contracts.
As The Conservancy's contract now stands, they are to continue to operate one year into the City's takeover of the parks - through 2010.
At first, it was stated the Conservancy needed to satisfy diversity hiring goals (turns out 40% of their employees are minority) and adhere to residency requirement rules (turns out 68% live in the city, even though they have been county-funded for the past five years and that hadn't been a requirement).
After those were satisfied, the new issue is insisting the Conservancy comply with a living wage provision, equipment needs and inflationary riders, yet you are unwilling to provide them with the means to resolve these issues.
But there had to have been agreement as of last week in order for the Conservancy to operate into next year. No contract has been arranged. No negotiating has taken place. No meetings have been held. No phone calls have been returned. As it stands now, an emergency meeting of the Conservancy has to be held this week to determine what employees have to be fired first, two weeks before Christmas. They will not have a budget for salaries as of January 1, 2010.
Your spokesman has said, "...that negotiations with the Conservancy were continuing." But there haven't been any. You have been negotiating with the county to take over 50 parks employees and negotiating with unions on their contracts.
You have proposed to the City Council to create an $85,000 a year position of "Deputy Parks Commissioner," but have yet to respond to the Council's questions about the position. So that's on hold too.
The majority of citizens want the Conservancy to stay put. The majority of the City Council wants them to stay put. Your opposing mayoral candidates, in three years, will have the rallying cry of, "Remember the Olmsted Parks fiasco?" Who is advising you on this issue? The unions? They're not looking after your back.
The lack of communication with the Conservancy reeks of ineptness, ignorance, incompetence and -- if not those -- deceit. It certainly doesn't seem like there's a plan where all the partners are clear on what the goals are and everyone heading in the same direction, resolving issues, with transparency.
As the president of Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest garden tour in the country, I am more than aware of the value of our Olmsted Parks as both a quality of life benefit and as a a tourism draw. It is an asset any city in the nation would envy. Having the right stewards in place to keep, improve and restore one of the city's most valuable assets is just good business.
The Conservancy is that steward. The City of Buffalo neither has the reputation, capability nor history of being diligent and progressive stewards of the Parks. Whatever you're planning (because it's not clear), The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy should be your partner in stewardship. Pick up the phone and give them a call Mr. Mayor. The number is 838.1249. Ask for Thomas. He's waiting by the phone.