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City should keep its hands off Olmsteds

The folks at City Hall should have enough sense to leave well enough alone. The key word in that sentence is "should."

Instead, Mayor Byron Brown seems ready to gum up the engine of one of the few things in the city that runs well. Like a toddler with a tool kit, City Hall apparently cannot stop itself from doing damage.

The city is about to retake control of its parks from the county. The mayor seems poised to make a power grab for some of the jobs at the nonprofit Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which restored and runs the six jewels of the city's parks system. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the city -- on flimsy pretense -- is dragging the Conservancy to the table to "negotiate" an agreement.

It would be bad enough if Brown is simply arm-twisting the Conservancy into handing over some jobs. The fear among Olmsted backers is that Brown -- juiced by his easy victory in the recent primary -- wants to kick the Conservancy to the curb and claim all of its 150 full- or part-time jobs.

"We never said, and never suggested, that this is an effort to get rid of the Conservancy," mayoral spokesman Peter Cutler said. "We want an agreement that is in the best interests of the city and park users."

I do not think the mayor wants to provoke a frontal assault from the Olmsted army by jettisoning the Conservancy. But Brown clearly is salivating over a potential mother lode of patronage jobs -- particularly in postprimary season, with his backers looking to be rewarded with places on the payroll.

There is little doubt that the deeper City Hall sinks its claws into the Olmsteds, the worse the parks will be. The city's previous go-round with its parks was a grim journey marked by busted swings, broken seesaws and waterless swimming pools. Its uninspired stewardship of the Johnnie B. Wiley sports complex hardly inspires confidence.

Stop me before I invoke the memory of Bob Delano, the infamously wayward parks commissioner under Mayor Jimmy Griffin who vindictively dumped chlorine into Delaware Park Lake. Granted, that was a different administration. But it shows what can happen if the Olmsteds are run by people who are not passionate about them.

The city has been paying the county $1.8 million a year to care for its parks, $1.3 million of which went to the Olmsted Conservancy. In return, the Conservancy gives taxpayers the biggest bang for the buck in municipal government. It fills half of its annual $3.2 million budget with private dollars, raised by and from a legion of true believers in Frederick Law Olmsted, America's genius landscape architect. That army includes 1,000 volunteers who keep the grass mowed, the trees trimmed and the gardens planted at Delaware, Martin Luther King, South, Front, Cazenovia and Riverside parks.

To my mind, City Hall should not be "negotiating" with the Conservancy people. It should be thanking them for giving residents about $3 million of Olmsted Parks care at half-price.

Brown is trying to hide his lust for patronage jobs behind a smoke screen of "concerns" about where the Conservancy's staff lives and how much seasonal workers are paid. Give me a break. The city has not had an address-checking residency officer for years. As for the city's worthy but much-abused "living wage" standard, the mayor has contorted himself to avoid paying it to everyone from ambulance workers to seasonal trash collectors.

Beyond that, the Conservancy's 40 percent minority work force sets the diversity bar for any major cultural group. I think the real problem, in City Hall's view, is not that the Conservancy does not fill enough positions with black people. It is that it does not fill enough positions with Brown people.


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