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Proposed merger of Fairmount Parks and Rec Dept. likely to be decided by voters

City Council yesterday took a major step toward radically changing the way Philadelphia has managed 9,200 acres of parks for the past 141 years.

City Council yesterday took a major step toward radically changing the way Philadelphia has managed 9,200 acres of parks for the past 141 years.

Council's Law and Government Committee approved legislation that would ask voters if they want to fold the Fairmount Park Commission, established in 1867, into the city's Department of Recreation. That would give the mayor control over the parks through creation of the new Department of Parks and Recreation.

The proposed change to the city's charter, if approved by the full Council next week, could be placed on the November general-election ballot.

Fairmount Park Commission President Robert N.C. Nix III acknowledged that the move to combine agencies, a proposal that has been circulating in City Hall for two years, found political support from Council and Mayor Nutter.

Nix expressed faith in Nutter to handle the parks.

But Commission vice president Alex Bonavitacola cited the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" to oppose the move.

Bonavitacola, a former Common Pleas president judge, said the commission was set up after the Civil War to preserve open land and the city drinking-water supply that filters through it.

"The purpose was to keep Fairmount Park away from popular political whims," he added.

The plan to combine agencies drew strong support from the Philadelphia Parks Alliance.

"History has clearly demonstrated that a separate parks commission and a parks director disconnected from the mayor's chain of command is a recipe for neglect of parks," said Alliance president Pete Hoskins. "The fatal flaw of disconnected governance has been cruel to our parks and people who rely on them, most especially as taxpayer funding has had to compete strongly against many other vital needs."

A new Parks and Recreation Commission would be created to develop policy but would no longer control it. Unlike Fairmount Park Commission members, chosen in secret by the Board of Judges, the new commission members would be recommended by Council after public hearings and then appointed by the mayor.

"They will still be intimately involved in this process," said Councilman Darrell Clarke, who sponsored the legislation with Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. "We're trying to have as transparent a process as imaginable."

Clarke and Brown, during the hearing, cited the "Acres of Neglect" series published in 2001 by the Daily News, as drawing attention to the underfunded and poorly tended park system.

Nutter has increased funding for the parks by $2.5 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and by 46 percent over the next five years. He supports the move, citing this week "the opportunity right here, right now" to make the city more efficient in managing parks and delivering services.

Clarke said his goal is to have the new commission in place by mid-2009 and the two agencies merged by the end of 2009. *