A public-private park conservancy in Queens, and the de Blasio administration that approved it, are under scrutiny for a funding mechanism and board structure that are allegedly less than public — and possibly illegal. New York City Council Member Mark Lancman, representing the 24th District in Queens, has sued mayor Bill de Blasio, the city of New York, and the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Corporation, alleging that the city’s charter and administrative code have been flaunted in the creation of the Alliance for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
The public-private Alliance was first announced in 2013, as part of a community benefits deal struck with the United States Tennis Association. The USTA was expanding its tennis facilities in the park, which play host to the U.S. Open. The USTA also agreed to pay $10.05 million, half of which would go to the parks department for major renovations around the center, and half of which would be meted out by a newly created public-private entity for upkeep and programming.
The Alliance was long delayed, however, and its creation wasn’t formally announced until November 2015. Business, government and community leaders, including the director of public affairs for Con Edison, and the general counsel for the USTA would sit on its board. So would ex-officio members like the parks commissioner and Queens borough president. But only one of the four council members whose districts overlap or abut the park received a spot. “It was exactly as I feared and was concerned about,” says Lancman, on learning that he and the two other council members had been left off the board, despite his district including just less than half the park. “I made it very plain to everyone involved that I should not be left out of equation and that this board needed to be representative of the elected officials who represent the park,” he says.
The one council member who does sit on the board, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, helped negotiate the deal. Lancman calls it “as blatant as a political maneuver as you’ll ever see,” an exclusive appointment for one of the mayor’s allies. His suit alleges that when it comes to the board’s make-up, the city’s administrative code has been broken. That code requires that a nonprofit managing a public asset must have representatives on its board that are recommended by each of the council members with jurisdiction over that asset, and approved by the mayor. Whether or not de Blasio accepted Lancman’s recommendation, he should have been allowed to make one, “but he was never given that opportunity,” says Lancman’s lawyer, Alan Sash.
The suit also alleges that the Alliance’s funding structure violates the city charter, which mandates that all revenue paid to the city, to any department, agency, board, borough, commission and so on must, with a few exceptions, be paid into the general fund. But under the USTA deal, that $10 million would go directly to the Alliance, to spend as it pleases. “We believe that under the city charter that money has to go directly to the city,” says Sash, “for the city to decide how to appropriate that money, with all the oversight that goes with that, and not a private, not-for-profit entity.”
The New York City Law Department has declined a request for comment.
Lancman says he raised his concerns early on, and took them up the administration to the highest level, but that ultimately he felt the lawsuit was the only way to “vindicate what I believe to be my rights.” But it’s about more than just representation, he says, “it’s about how our public resources — our most precious public resources, our parks — are commercialized outside of public scrutiny and public view.”
Both he and Sash agree that public-private partnerships can be a boon for public assets, but allege that in this case, the law has been broken and a dangerous precedent set. “At the very least it’s a park equity issue,” says Sash. “It’s meant for public, and once you start getting private corporations giving money to a private not for profit without a proper oversight system, before you know it, it may end up not being for the public anymore, and being for a select few, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
Lancman and the city will go to court this fall, and Sash says the judge will issue a decision any time after December.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.