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Olmsted Conservancy defends its stewardship of city parks

Most Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy employees and trustees live in the city, and the nonprofit organization trains hundreds of welfare recipients, including minorities, for parks maintenance and management work.

Moreover, the Conservancy has raised as much money privately -- $8 million -- as it has received from taxpayers in the six years since it assumed control of the city's six landmark parks and interconnecting parkways and circles.

Those were among several points conservancy leaders stressed Tuesday during a news conference designed to "set the record straight" on their stewardship of the landmark parks system, after Mayor Byron W. Brown hinted that the group might be left out in the cold when the city regains control of its parks and recreational facilities from Erie County at year's end.

They were clearly mystified by Brown's claims in a letter last week to County Executive Chris Collins that "only two of the Conservancy's 14 senior management personnel are city residents and 55 percent of the organization's administrative staff live outside of Buffalo" and that it does not pay a living wage to workers and lacks "a meaningful diversity employment program."

Brown told Collins, "I intend to address these and other issues" during negotiations with the Conservancy on a new parks management contract.

A 2004 agreement turned over all city parks to the county, but left the Conservancy in charge of the historic Olmsted parks. The three-way relationship "has been very strong up until now," said David J. Colligan, Conservancy chairman.

Both the city and county have been "good partners -- very helpful," he said. "We have no complaints about our relationship with the city."

Colligan questioned why Brown, especially, would consider removing a volunteer organization that has made "a visible, significant and positive" impact on the parks and the surrounding community and is intent on restoring Frederick Law Olmsted's 140-year-old blueprint for the system with mostly private money.

At news conferences announcing federal or state grants for parks improvements, "we always let the mayor speak because he is our leader," Colligan said. "We're here to serve the mayor and make him look good."

The Conservancy's goal entering negotiations on the new contract will be "to preserve our independent and autonomous approach to parks management," Colligan said.

The message to the Brown administration, he said, will be: "If you want to get the same results as in the past, continue with the people you had in the past."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a longtime champion of the Olmsted system and of the Conservancy, said he would cut off state assistance for parks if management of the Olmsted system reverts to the city.

"I wouldn't squander taxpayer dollars on somebody who wouldn't do a good job," said Hoyt.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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